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About this book

Matthew Woodcock provides a survey of the critical responses to this popular play, as well as the key debates and developments, from the seventeenth century to the present day. Leading the reader through material chronologically, the Guide summarises and assesses key interpretations, setting them in their intellectual and historical context.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Henry V is the last in a series of eight plays about English history of the period 1398–1485 that Shakespeare wrote during the 1590s. The first tetralogy, including some of Shakespeare’s earliest writings, portrayed the calamitous reign of Henry VI (1421–71), the escalation of the so-called Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York and the accession of Henry Tudor as Henry VII (1457–1509) following the defeat of Richard III (1452–85) at Bosworth field in 1485. After writing a stand-alone play about King John (1166–1216) and very likely having a hand in one about Edward III (1312–77), Shakespeare returned to the roots of the mid-fifteenth-century political turbulence and his second tetralogy depicted Henry Bolingbroke’s deposition of Richard II (1367–1400), Bolingbroke’s troubled reign as Henry IV (1366–1413) and the youthful adventures of his son Hal, the future Henry V (1387–1422), both in taverns and on the battlefield. Henry V is perhaps the best known and most popular of all of Shakespeare’s English histories. It contains some of Shakespeare’s most rousing, patriotic speeches and projects the eponymous hero as a model of chivalric kingship, skilled and courageous military commander, shrewd orator and well-supported ruler of a unified, ordered realm.
Matthew Woodcock, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter One. Making the Text: Date, Sources, Textual History

Abstract
This chapter examines several connected areas of critical controversy relating to how and when Henry V was composed and presented. There have been many conjectures about the date and initial context of performance, the sources Shakespeare used in the play’s composition and the relationship between the Quarto text of 1600 (and its subsequent reprints) and 1623 Folio. This chapter considers some of the more technical issues that underlie much of the play’s later critical history, for example, dating criteria and textual scholarship, which are often glossed over by students and commentators coming to the play for the first time. It sets out to elucidate different critics’ understanding of the story behind Shakespeare’s text and highlights the subjective, creative element frequently applied in reconstructing such a story. It provides, therefore, a series of salutary examples of how many of the tenets commonly accepted as incontrovertible facts about the play and its origins are grounded upon reasoned conjectures about textual and contextual materials, individual and collective value judgements and fervent critical debate.
Matthew Woodcock, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Two. The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Neoclassicism and Early Editions

Abstract
There is very little evidence of how Shakespeare’s first audiences responded to Henry V. The title page to the 1600 Quarto declares that it was ‘sundry times played by the Right honorable the Lord Chamberlain his servants’, and an entry in the Revels accounts mentions a single performance at court by the King’s Majesty’s Players on 7 January 1605. In the prologue to his revised Every Man in His Humour (1616; first performed 1598), Ben Jonson (1572–1637) makes a dismissive allusion to how Shakespeare’s own Chorus professedly ‘wafts you o’er the seas’ (suggested in Henry V, 5.0.6–9), and The Noble Gentleman (c. 1624–5) by John Fletcher (1579–1625) includes a parody of Canterbury’s Salic law speech.1 Early commentators are otherwise silent on the play and there is no record of it being staged between 1605 and 1738, which is perhaps somewhat surprising, given the Stuarts’ penchant for the kinds of masques and pageantry to which it has actually been compared by later critics and directors. Emma Smith suggests that the play’s immediate topicality limited its potential for success on the early stage.2 The play also failed to align with the prevailing aesthetic tastes of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
Matthew Woodcock, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Three. The Nineteenth Century: Romantic and Victorian Interpretations

Abstract
It is in the nineteenth century that we first find extended critical essays dedicated to discussing Henry V in detail, as opposed to fragmentary observations in editorial commentaries. The century as a whole sees the emergence of literary study as a distinct academic discipline. Increasing numbers of individual scholarly, rather than acting editions of the play are produced during this period together with versions specifically designated as school editions, in response to the eventual establishment of compulsory education in England during the 1870s and consequent growth in new audiences of younger readers. The scholarly field had developed in breadth and complexity to such an extent by the end of the nineteenth century that M. C. Bradbrook (1909–93) describes this period as ‘the Industrial Revolution of Shakespeare studies’.1 Looking back to the beginning of the century, however, one finds Shakespeare criticism dominated by some of the leading figures of German and English Romanticism and the lectures, essays and reviews of August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) and William Hazlitt. The Romantic critics reacted both to their predecessors in Shakespeare studies (particularly Johnson) and to the turbulent political situation of the day, principally events surrounding the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821).
Matthew Woodcock, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Four. The Early Twentieth Century: What Makes a Good King?

Abstract
Literary criticism of the early twentieth century continues to refine the rigorous, analytic methodologies for interpretation and criticism developed during the later nineteenth century and the discipline becomes more firmly rooted within a professional, institutional academic setting. Victorian critics such as Dowden and Moulton had already marked out themselves and their mode of enquiry from the more subjective, reflective commentary typical of earlier generations of men of letters such as Johnson and Hazlitt. But later-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics of Henry V were just as interested as their forebears in examining and accounting for Shakespeare’s construction of Henry’s character and ensured that any investigation of the play’s structure, genre and tone was centred on, and rarely distanced from, a critique of the king himself. As we have seen, it would be wrong to suggest that every nineteenth-century critic was unreservedly positive about Henry V or to look to the spectacular Victorian theatrical productions as a direct and wholly representative indicator of a contemporary scholarly consensus. However, one does continue to find reiterations of a heroic, patriotic view of Henry throughout the first quarter of the twentieth century up to and during the period of the First World War.
Matthew Woodcock, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Five. The Mid-Twentieth Century: History, War and Epic

Abstract
Despite the negative readings of Henry V and its hero that emerged after the First World War, and productions of this period presenting a more pacifist line, the play’s patriotic potential once again influenced both critical and dramatic responses following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Adding greater complexity to the more rudimentary jingoistic identifications made in earlier treatments of Henry V, criticism of the 1940s began to explore the different ways in which the play engages with the historical contexts of both its composition and subsequent re-staging, and to consider how Shakespeare experiments with a form best suited to the representation of war: the dramatic epic. The period covered in this chapter saw the establishment of the critical perspective and methodology latterly termed historicism, which still, in modified guises, forms the basis of much modern-day criticism. Before discussing the chief practitioners of this approach, and some of the questions it raises, a distinction should be drawn between interpretations of this period that sought to apply the play to the wartime context and those that offered extended literary analysis locating Henry V in relation to its original historical milieu. It is with this first form of interpretation that we will begin here.
Matthew Woodcock, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Six. The Mid- to Late Twentieth Century: Ambivalence and Play

Abstract
Critics from the second half of the twentieth century onwards increasingly confront and challenge the binary hero/villain, eulogy/satire interpretations of Henry V by exploring how Shakespeare actively cultivates a sense of uncertainty, inconsistency and ambivalence in his presentation of the hero and his actions. Whereas earlier criticism adopted opposed positions in a debate between positive and negative readings, one now finds more widespread acknowledgement that the play itself offers an ongoing interrogation of both the king’s character and the validity of his actions in declaring and waging war. As the critics discussed in this chapter argue, contradiction and a sense of struggle between political and ethical conceptions of good conduct are not only features of Henry V’s critical tradition but also an intentional part of Shakespeare’s original design for the play itself. The identification of points of contradiction, irony and ambivalence in a work, together with a conscious eschewal of historical and biographical contextualization, were central principles of the so-called New Criticism that developed in the United States during the 1930s and which remained prevalent until the 1960s.
Matthew Woodcock, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Seven. The Later Twentieth Century and Beyond: Power, Subversion and Masculinity

Abstract
During the early 1980s, critics of early modern literature began to re-evaluate the assumptions and practices used by previous generations of commentators and academics when considering how historical context relates to the production and reception of literary works. Practitioners of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism sought to deconstruct the Old Historicist principle that a text can be understood simply by situating it passively against its historical background. They also challenged the whole hierarchy that privileges so-called literary texts over non-literary sources previously used to constitute and delineate that background. New Historicists afforded the same weight to literary and non-literary texts, viewing them as equally complicit in both forming and recording a given historical moment, and drew attention to what Louis Montrose called the ‘textuality of history and the historicity of texts’.1 Such a method obviously has potentially great implications for broadening the canon of texts forming the focus of critical studies. Tillyard’s concept of an Elizabethan world picture that could be used to explain the philosophical and ideological workings of a text, which informs earlier historicist readings, subsequently came in for repeated criticism for being an anachronistic contrivance that excluded and effectively silenced marginal and subordinate aspects of Tudor and Stuart culture.2
Matthew Woodcock, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Eight. A Play for the New Millennium: Nationhood, Memory and Just War

Abstract
We have seen that throughout the play’s critical history, commentators and editors have sought to explain and understand Henry V by making recourse to the formal and political contexts in which it was produced and first performed. As seen in the previous chapter, New Historicists and Cultural Materialists also attempted to identify the linguistic, symbolic and imaginative operations of Elizabethan statepower using insights revealed, both consciously and unconsciously, by Shakespeare himself. By the 1990s, materialist criticism formed the basis of the accepted consensus approach to Shakespeare and early modern literature as a whole. Purely aestheticist readings of Henry V are by now the exception to the rule, and those that do appear are frequently prefaced by an exculpatory justification of method. Indeed, there are even traces of such sentiments in the long explanatory methodological discussions of Bradshaw and McAlindon. As we saw earlier, self-conscious expositions of critical methods form an inseparable part of earlier materialist discussions of Henry V, but still leave more detailed questions unresolved when it comes to the play’s instrumental effect, the perceived homogeneity of its audience and Shakespeare’s motives for writing such a potentially subversive work. Broad comparative gestures and analogies often falter when confronted with sustained textual evidence, and the relentless hunt for the revelation of ideology at work can tell us as much about modern critical and political paranoia as it can about Shakespeare.
Matthew Woodcock, Nicolas Tredell

Conclusion

Abstract
This Guide has demonstrated just how many interpretative questions and problems Henry V has raised since it was first staged over four centuries ago. During the course of its reception history, almost every aspect of the play and its hero has stimulated fruitful debate and further analysis, and we have charted the major trends and paradigm shifts in scholarly opinion. Up until the early nineteenth century commentators were particularly interested in the play’s formal properties and discussed its unity, genre and perceived dramatic limitations. It was during the nineteenth century that character-centred criticism came to the fore and one sees a proliferation of evaluative interpretations of the king’s person and conduct, a preoccupation that exists for critics, albeit in different guises, to the present day. Character criticism is certainly not outdated and literary critics and theorists continue to explore the structures through which subjectivity and identity were formulated and articulated in the early modern period. The twentieth century saw both the emergence of detailed studies of Henry V’s historical context and, at the same time, sustained attention to the play’s aesthetic qualities and formal interpretative cruces. As discussed above, Shakespeare’s employment of ambivalence and irony has become the customary focus for critics grappling with questions that the play raises about war and conquest.
Matthew Woodcock, Nicolas Tredell
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