Henry V

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.”
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Synopsis

Act One
We are introduced to the Chorus, who urge us to use our imaginations to help tell this epic story of Henry V and England’s challenge to the French throne.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is summoned by the newly crowned King Henry V, who wants to know more about his claim to the French throne. Henry’s father warned him that England’s nobles need a foreign war to distract them from internal quarrels. The Archbishop is equally keen for a war to distract Henry from passing a law threatening the Church’s possessions. Henry makes his choice – war.

The French Ambassador arrives with a message from the Dauphin (the Prince of France). As a snide joke about Henry’s youthful drinking and gaming the Dauphin has sent him a box of tennis balls. Henry’s message back is that this mockery has sealed the fate of the French people.

Act Two
On his way to France (via Southampton) Henry quells an assassination plot by three of his trusted advisors. Instead of viewing this as a bad omen, Henry declares it proves that God is on their side.

The action jumps to a pub back in London, where Henry’s old companions – the Cheapside gang – are in mourning for Falstaff, an old knight who was a father figure to the younger Henry. Henry subsequently shunned him, knowing a king could not be associated with such a rogue. The gang blame Henry for breaking Falstaff’s heart but accept that a king has to make tough decisions.

The French have heard that Henry is sailing from Southampton to attack, and so the French King calls for preparations. The Dauphin tries to convince his father not to worry due to Henry’s reputation as a drunken fool, but the king is not so sure.

Act Three
Henry besieges Harfleur and they surrender. It is a personal triumph for Henry as a military leader. The English head towards Calais but soon supplies run low and morale suffers. One of the Cheapside gang is discovered stealing from a church and Henry makes the hard decision to execute him as an example.

Act Four
French and English forces finally meet beside the castle of Agincourt. The night before the battle Henry wanders round the camp in disguise to discover his soldiers’ thoughts. He is feeling the strain of leadership, knowing that tomorrow he could order thousands of men to their death.

Next morning Henry does not urge his soldiers to the front as he did at Harfleur. Instead he asks why anyone would want to be elsewhere on this day which will go down in history as a great English victory. The battle is bloody, complicated and compromising. Both sides are taken by surprise and it’s unclear who has won. When it is announced that England has lost only 25 men to France’s thousands it feels like a miracle. Henry claims the victory for God and the English march to Calais.

Act Five
Henry receives a hero’s welcome in England. The French are eager to negotiate a peace treaty sealed by Henry’s marriage to Katharine, Princess of France. In his final “battle” Henry successfully woos Katharine and she accepts. The kingdoms are united and Henry’s reign is secured.

But the Chorus remind us this happy ending is short lived. With Henry V’s death an infant Henry VI cannot retain his father’s gains and England is once again plunged into civil war.

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Photo credits: Charlotte Graham Photography