Stage To Screen: Henry V

English Historical Fiction Authors

This month’s Stage To Screen is a strike-while-the-iron-is-hot kind of scenario, because first of all, I felt like writing about Henry V, and secondly, the Lawrence Olivier version is on HBO Max right now, so the timing is fortuitous.

Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, and is thought to have been written and perfomed in 1599. It’s an installment in a series that features not only Henry, but one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters, Falstaff, who has a thing or two to say to that rascal who would be king.


Like everything else Shakespeare did, Henry V‘s dialogue is part of English and American vernacular. For instance, if you’ve ever said, “The game’s afoot,” or “Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” or “we band of brothers,” you’re quoting Henry V.

The plot is simply this: Henry is heir to the French throne as well as the English, but the French aren’t willing to honor that. In fact, the Dauphin of France sends Henry a set of tennis balls as a veiled challenge. In response, Henry gathers his troops and in the process of preparing for war and going to war, he has to examine both his loyalties to his old friends and his mens’ loyalty towards him. In the end, everyone, including him, has to talk themselves into doing what is necessary and resigning themselves to the inevitable.

Chicago On the Aisle

As is most often the case with dramatized biography, Shakespeare’s Henry is lightly fictionalized, but most of it is condensing of slowly-building events. Henry V lived from around 1387 until 1422, and while his reign is fraught with intrigue, we’re only going to focus on the part that’s relevant to Shakespeare’s play. When Henry became king at the tail end of the Hundred Years’ War, the fighting had been on hiatus for several years, and Henry expected to lay claim to their throne and the territory Britain had taken. He also expected to marry Catherine, the King’s daughter. His ambitions weren’t merely territorial; there had been so much infighting among the nobility and the royalty that Henry wanted to make his presence felt.

Understandably, the French weren’t too jazzed about any of this, so Henry decided all bets were off and called in all favors. He left for France and fought the battle of Harfleur, which was a costly victory for the Brits, depriving them of many men and dealing a blow to morale.

Part of the Agincourt battlefield as it looks today. (Scott Manning)

The Battle of Agincourt took place on October 25, 1415. In some ways the odds were stacked against Henry, so he really didn’t want to go into battle again, but it was inevitable. Again, the French lost, and the reverberations are still felt. In fact, the defeat at Agincourt is so humiliating to this day that French schoolchildren aren’t taught much of anything about it, similar to the Japanese attitude about Pearl Harbor.

It goes without saying that Henry won the day and married Katherine, but his victory was short-lived, as he would die of dysentery seven years after Agincourt.

Frank Benson as Henry, 1900. (Britannica)

Despite his slight tweaks, Shakespeare’s approach to Henry and Agincourt were pretty pragmatic, and while he obviously favored the Brits, he was kind in his portrayal of the French aristrocracy and what was at stake when Henry took over. Shakespeare’s Henry is thoroughly honorable, although possibly a little less aggressive than the real Henry.

In the play, Henry has an old friend of his hanged for stealing from a church and goes out of his way to warn his men to be kind to the French people they meet. When he finally comes in contact with Charles the Sixth, Henry shows him no malice and sees the new alliance as an act of friendship. The one thing that Shakespeare seems to leave out is the rampant infighting among the French nobility that was going on at the time.


Despite being a well-known play, Henry V hasn’t been translated to the screen all that much, at least not as a feature film, probably because it’s overshadowed by such powerhouses as Romeo and Juliet. However, it makes up for its lack of quantity with quality. Most of the time, anyway–I wouldn’t waste energy on the atrocious 2007 film.

One of the first major versions is the 1944 Laurence Olivier film, which Olivier also directed. Most of the actors would not be well-known to American audiences, but the cool thing about the movie is its partial recreation of what it must have been like to see the play performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime. We see actors in theatrical makeup and curtains being pulled. We see the audiences guffawing and reacting. Also, naturally, we see the stagehands look nervous when the sky threatens rain because the theater is open-air. The film just stops short of comedy, and everything looks like a fantasy, with bright colors and obvious stageiness.

The Criterion Collection

Olivier is, of course, one of the grand old men and women of Shakespeare and he’s a pleasure to watch here. I like that things are kept relatively light in the midst of battle scenes and conquered passions, but it’s never flippant. Olivier’s scenes with Renee Asheron, who plays Katherine, are very sweet.

Much as I like Olivier’s interpretation, I think Kenneth Branaugh’s 1989 film is a real treat. Branaugh was no stranger to the material, having played Henry in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1984 production, which, incidentally also starred Brian Blessed and two Star Wars alumni, Sebastian Shaw and Ian MacDiarmid. Branaugh both directed and starred in the film, which has a marvelous vigor.

Kenneth Branaugh in the 1984 Royal Shakespeare Company production. (Royal Shakespeare Company)

And it looks terrific. Like Branaugh’s Much Ado About Nothing, there are a lot of long fluid shots with very few cuts, and effective use of light and shadow. One of the things I especially like is that the Chorus, who is usually just one guy, is part of the action. In the Olivier version the Chorus would say his piece and make himself scarce, but in the Branaugh film, the Chorus, played by Derek Jacobi, walks through the action as everything happens around him, and he gets wet and dirty like everyone else.

The one thing I would say about Branaugh’s version is that it can look dark to the point of being muddy sometimes, and there’s a lot of whispering going on due to the widespread court intrigue, but these are only very small issues. The acting is fantastic, the cast crowded with respected British actors. Ian Holm. Emma Thompson. Geraldine McEwan. Brian Blessed. Paul Scofield. Just to name a few.


Not to mention, a young Christian Bale has a small speaking role as the Boy. He’s very visible in the movie, which probably means Branaugh saw something in him. He was right, of course.

Henry V is a robust and rousing play, and it deserves its spot as one of Shakespeare’s most iconic works.

Henry V’s grave in Westminster Abbey (Find A Grave)

A wee reminder about a certain big event is coming up on Friday, so I hope you’ll check back. There may or may not be cute rodents involved, because we’re all about messing with the head.

The 1944 version of Henry V is available on DVD from Amazon, as is the 1989 film (Blu-ray and DVD). Shakespeare’s original text can be found here.

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