The Weight of History: Meditations on Shakespeare’s Henry V

Derbhle Crotty as Henry IV and Aisling O'Sullivan as Prince Hal, the future Henry V, in Druid Theatre's Henriad cycle at the Mick Lally Theatre in Galway.
Derbhle Crotty as Henry IV and Aisling O’Sullivan as Prince Hal, the future Henry V, in Druid Theatre’s cycle of Shakespeare’s Henriad at the Mick Lally Theatre in Galway.

So often, the problem with Shakespeare’s Henry V in performance is the play’s fixation on the past. This may seem to be an ironic complaint to make of a history play, but hear me out. During one of the climactic scenes, the night before the battle, we see King Henry alone for the first time in the play, and he kneels to pray:


O God of battles! steel my soldiers’ hearts;

Possess them not with fear; take from them now

The sense of reckoning, if the opposed numbers

Pluck their hearts from them. Not to-day, O Lord,

O, not to-day, think not upon the fault

My father made in compassing the crown!

I Richard’s body have interred anew;

And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears

Than from it issued forced drops of blood.


When these lines come in Druid Theatre’s epic marathon production of Henry V and the three history plays that come before it (Richard II and the two parts of Henry IV, collectively called the second tetralogy or the Henriad), they are spoken by Aisling O’Sullivan, kneeling in a blanket of sod, as King Richard II (Marty Rea) and King Henry IV (Derbhle Crotty) stand at Henry’s shoulders. Nearly five hours before, we saw this cycle begin, and now we see it end with a reminder of just how we got here: three plays, two kings, and just one crown. These reminders are written into the speech itself, of course, but it can be hard for a modern audience—assuming they’re even familiar with the Henry IV plays, or the much more infrequently performed Richard II—to feel their immediacy. Druid can make the memory visible, with immense impact.

In the 1940s, the hugely influential and subsequently largely discredited literary critic E. M. W. Tillyard proposed that Shakespeare’s second tetralogy was the story of divine retribution for an unforgivable crime: Henry IV’s deposition and murder of the rightful king, Richard II. Though viewed today as far too simplistic to account for Shakespeare’s nuanced and deeply ironic portrayal of all three kings in the cycle, the ghost of Richard and the echoes of his death do endure well beyond his eponymous play.

Though the Royal Shakespeare Company will also be providing the opportunity to see all four plays in sequence in the fall, Druid condenses the text (the masterful adaptations are by Mark O’Rowe) to allow the entire cycle to take place in a single day. There is no need, therefore, to try to desperately remember who this Richard is that Henry’s suddenly praying about; we’ve seen him, we’ve seen that fault his father made in compassing the crown. Witnessing the piling up of bodies, of rebels, of pretenses for violent disorder casts the superficially triumphant Henry V in a profoundly ambivalent light. Director Garry Hynes and designer Francis O’Connor echo the unglamorous, mud-spattered Agincourt of Kenneth Branagh’s famous film adaptation, but seeing the effect live is truly striking.

Though critics think of these four plays as a cycle today, we do not know for certain how Shakespeare’s company considered them or grouped them in performance. But Druid’s Henry V feels forcefully like a culmination, the play’s stark stylistic differences from its predecessors only highlighting that King Henry V cannot escape or gloss over what he and his father have done. Some clever character doubling for actor Aaron Monaghan, who plays the Chorus who provides narration between scenes, helps subtly reinforce this impression. The entire cycle is captivating from start to finish, but Henry V seemed the most entirely transformed by being placed in direct comparison to what had come before it.

The Maverick Theatre and Unicorn Theatre take the opposite tack in trying to account for the weight of un-depicted history in Henry V. Both are adaptations that paraphrase and add to Shakespeare’s text. The Unicorn’s Henry the Fifth is a retelling for young audiences, while Maverick’s Henry V: The Lion of England is a one-woman show. In stripping away the non-military subplots and focusing on politics, battle movements, and corrections to Shakespeare’s shaky historical accuracy in asides, adaptor Nick Hennegan unfortunately also strips his Lion of England of Shakespeare’s essential irony, which Eleanor Dillon-Reams’s agile and earnest performance and a somewhat clumsy epilogue cannot quite restore.

The Unicorn’s production, on the other hand, adapted by Ignace Cornelissen, translated by Purni Morell, and directed by Ellen McDougall, creates an almost entirely original plot and all original dialogue, but in the process captures and updates much of the essential spirit of Shakespeare’s play. Though the storyline is new— King Henry (Alex Austin) and the King of France, here named Nigel (John Biddle), wage war over ownership of a sand castle and Princess Katherine— the presence of a charming narrator (Offue Okegbe), who opens by invoking the audience’s imagination, as well as cheeky adaptations of other iconic moments make the production’s debt to Shakespeare plain. Presenting the entire play in a childish register—sand castles, balloon soldiers, wooden swords, and Henry as a hilariously petulant schoolboy-king— works shockingly well not only to make the story relatable and comprehensible for young audiences, but to sharply highlight deeper questions about the morality of war. Tanya Lattul’s Princess Katherine becomes a voice for those disenfranchised by history as we are taught it, for the collateral damage of petty spats between powerful men. There is only glancing reference to Henry’s rebellious youth; in general, the past is irrelevant, but Cornelissen’s adaptation finds other ways of establishing the uncertainty of Henry’s rule.

Even from its setting in the past, Shakespeare’s play keeps looking backwards. Though in many ways Henry V’s popular reputation has become that of the First Great War Story, Laurence Olivier’s World War II propaganda masterpiece, one clip of the master-cut of inspirational speeches, the text itself (and the best productions of it) is unable to shake off the parts that cannot fit into that narrative: the rebels and kings and friends killed on the way there, the people who watch from the sidelines, who fight in the front lines, whose voices cannot quite be heard over the charismatic proclamations of choruses and kings.

DruidShakespeare’s Henriad continues at the Mick Lally Theatre in Galway until May 30 and goes on to tour Ireland and New York. Maverick Theatre’s Henry V continues at the Wheatsheaf until June 14. Unicorn Theatre’s children’s version of Henry V continues at the theatre until May 31.

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