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What Are the Origins of Shakespeare's "Henry V"?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated Feb 09, 2024
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Shakespeare's Henry V is one of the best-known of his history plays, and is about the King of England's military campaign in France, culminating in a victory against overwhelming odds at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Shakespeare's play is derived from a number of sources. Its primary source is Holinshed's Chronicles, an English historical text known to have been used by Shakespeare for several of his plays. It also draws on elements of Shakespeare's previous plays, as well as contemporary events.

The second edition of Holinshed's Chronicles, published in 1587, was the source for many of Shakespeare's history plays, and Henry V is no exception. The main story of the play, relating Henry's victory over the French, is present in Holinshed's work. In addition, the story that the king was drunken and dissolute in his youth, which provides much of the narrative arc between Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V, occurs in the Chronicles. Shakespeare used this central story as the structure of his play, adding additional scenes and characters to create the narrative he wanted to achieve.

In addition to Holinshed, Shakespeare consulted other sources relating to Henry V. One of these may have been The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York by Edward Hall. Shakespeare may also have read a Latin biography of Henry, Henrici Quinti Angliae Regis Gesta, which dated from the period of Henry's rule.

Henry V follows on from Richard II and the two parts of Henry IV to form a four-part narrative dealing with questions of rulership and war. Henry V is portrayed as in many ways a heroic ruler, combining prudence and political cunning with bravery and military skill. The play also illuminates the impact of warfare on the common people, both depicting the hardships suffered by common soldiers and celebrating the role of ordinary Englishmen in defeating the vastly larger French army.

The first performance of the play was for the new king of England, James I, who had previously reigned as James VI of Scotland. Some scholars have suggested that Henry V, like the other plays in the sequence, is intended, through its discussion of the traits of the ideal king, to endorse James's position as heir to Elizabeth I. Like many of Shakespeare's historical plays, the political elements of Henry V can be interpreted in multiple ways, with the politics of the 16th and early 17th centuries possibly being as important as the history of the 15th century.

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