Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: James D. Mardock
Peer Reviewed

Henry V: Stage and Screen


6Early performance and adaptation: 1599-1738

It is likely that even in Henry V's earliest performances, its ambiguities were knowingly used to achieve different effects. The title page of the first quarto of the play claims that it "hath bene sundry times playd by the Right honorable the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants," but no early records of its performance survive. The usual evidence used to date the play appears only in the 1623 Folio: the apparent reference by the Chorus to the Earl of Essex's hoped-for return from Ireland, "Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword" (TLN 2882) suggests a date in the Spring of 1599, before Essex's failure to quell the Irish rebellion and his fall from Queen Elizabeth's good graces. At some point in 1599, then, the version of Henry V reflected by the Folio text seems to have been performed, perhaps "sundry times," perhaps -- as Tiffany Stern's arguments about the temporary nature of prologues and epilogues might suggest -- only once with the Choruses intact. But if, as seems likely, the 1600 quarto represents an acting script, then a quite different version of the play seems also to have been staged less than a year later. A printed text is not a performance, of course, but the differences in tone and emphasis between the F and Q versions of the play suggest that the company emphasized different aspects of the play at different times, adjusting the script for different audiences. If the Folio represents a very 1599 moment, for an audience whose mind was on Ireland, that moment seems to have passed for the audience of the Q version, a text that cuts the reference to Essex, the French reference to kerns and their straight strossers, and Macmorris, Shakespeare's only Irish character. The differences between the texts' representation of Henry and his war have been much debated (see Textual Introduction), but it seems safe to assert that Q, for example, gives a picture of a less divided English effort by removing the bickering captains, and that its more moderate version of Henry's threats to Harfleur and its excision of the dialogue about Henry having killed Falstaff make for a less morally complicated picture of the king. Whatever the impetus behind these changes, it seems clear that the play was seen by its original owners and performers as particularly adaptable to the needs of various audiences, and this malleability has characterized the history of Henry V on the stage.

7For whatever reason, the play seems not to have been particularly popular in the years following its first performances. It was performed for the court of King James I in 1605 -- likely, as Andrew Gurr suggests, without the broadly comic Scots Captain Jamy (Playing Companies 288) -- but no other record of a performance in the seventeenth century survives. Perhaps the foreign policy of King James -- whose motto was "Blessed are the peacemakers" and whose insistence on avoiding involvement in continental wars of religion throughout his reign made him increasingly unpopular among certain of his subjects -- made a poor backdrop for a play celebrating English military adventures in a foreign land.

8Shakespeare's play would not grace the professional stage again for 123 years. In 1664, according to Samuel Pepys, Thomas Betterton performed "incomparabl[y]" as Henry V at Lincoln's Inn Fields, but it was a Henry V reimagined by the Earl of Orrery's 1662 verse drama (a play that owes virtually nothing to Shakespeare) primarily as a heroic lover rather than a military hero. The theater of the eighteenth century cannibalized Henry V for its better speeches, rather than performing it as a whole. Parts of the first two acts of Shakespeare's play were incorporated by Betterton into the last act of his The Sequel of Henry the Fourth in 1700, while his competition at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane played Colley Cibber's adaptation of Richard III, which used lines from several of Shakespeare's histories, including Henry V. Charles Molloy imported Fluellen and Macmorris into the contemporary comedy of manners The Half-Pay Officers in 1720, and in 1723 Aaron Hill combined Orrery's and Shakespeare's verse into the tragi-comic romance King Henry the Fifth: Or, The Conquest of France, By the English. Better suited than Shakespeare's original to an English theater that used actresses, Hill's play, which he called a "new Fabrick, yet . . . built on His foundation" (A4v), incorporated the new female "trouser role" of Harriet, a niece of the traitorous Scrope and former mistress of King Henry who follows him to France in a male disguise reminiscent of Shakespeare's comic heroines. Harriet commits suicide, leaving Henry free to marry a Catherine whose part Hill greatly enlarged, giving her a past wherein she had fallen in love with a disguised King Henry, and making her the real cause of conflict between Henry and the dauphin.