Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: James D. Mardock
Peer Reviewed

General Introduction

Haunting us in our familiar paths: Henry V as a haunted play

In 1997, when the newly-reconstructed Globe Theater in London opened its doors, its management -- enthusiastic about the prospect of christening the new "Wooden O" with the Chorus's opening words -- chose Henry V as its inaugural production. An audience anecdote relates that during one performance, when Mark Rylance knelt as King Henry to deliver his prayer to the "God of battles," his desperate, anguished plea for God to pardon his father's sins in determining the outcome of the upcoming battle, one of the "groundlings" standing in the theater's courtyard broke the silence of the moment by shouting, "Oy Rylance! You're Henry, not Hamlet!" For this audience member, agonized soliloquies were the stuff of tragedy, the province of the self-doubting, melancholy prince of Denmark, not of King Henry, crowd-pleasing stirrer of patriotic fervor.

20That audience member's discomfort in the face of King Henry's one soliloquy in the play, however, reflects a dark counterpoint to the play's patriotic, celebratory narrative. In 1599, the year in which he wrote Henry V, Shakespeare's turn to tragedy was underway as he wrote Julius Caesar -- with its protagonist haunted by the ghost of a father figure he has killed -- and he may already have been in preparation for the following year's Hamlet, the tragedy of a man driven to distraction by the incursion of his father's ghost into his world. Even his two turn-of-the-century comedies, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, operate under the shadow of dead fathers, Rowland de Boys and Sebastian of Messaline. Henry V, the last chapter of Shakespeare's great cycle of histories, is the story of a man and a world no less haunted by the ghosts of the past.

As the characters repeatedly emphasize, the French campaign that culminates in Henry's miraculous victory at Agincourt is an echo of past glories, a later phase of English action in France during the dynastic struggles that would come to be known as the Hundred Years' War. King Edward III, the great-grandsire from whom Henry claims (TLN 250-51), had initiated open military conflict in the Hundred Years' War by invading France in 1346 with his son Edward the Black Prince, defeating the French decisively at the Battle of Crécy. Or at least that is the neat, heroic story that Shakespeare's characters make of the messy struggle for dominance, turning a period of war actually characterized by raids, backstabbing treaties, and petty alliances into a triumphant, near-mythic memory of spectacular chivalric victory. The Battle of Crécy is mentioned or alluded to four separate times in the play, by English and French alike. Crécy, with the fathers that killed and died there, is the symbolic impulse for Henry's war, the battle that wouldn't die.

Understandably, when viewed from a French perspective, the image of the first phase of the war as a specter is most explicit. The French King is still troubled by English ghosts: as he fearfully reminds his court, young Henry is descended from "that bloody strain, / That haunted us in our familiar paths . . . When Crécy battle fatally was struck" (TLN 941-44). It is not only the French, however, who feel the burden of the past as a haunting: Edward III haunts the English king as much as the French. King Edward, as Canterbury relates (closely following Holinshed's chronicle), watched happily from a hill as his son Edward the Black Prince defeated "the whole power of France" (TLN 254) seemingly single-handedly. It is specifically this image of King Edward's fatherly approval that the bishops call to mind to press Henry to war, and they do so explicitly in the language of conjuring the dead. "Go . . . to your great-grandsire's tomb," Canterbury advises; "Invoke his warlike spirit" (TLN 250-51). Ely calls upon Henry to "[a]wake remembrance of these valiant dead" (TLN 262), and Henry will enthusiastically undertake this act of memorial conjuration in his famous rallying speech before Harfleur. He is a king burdened by the question of his own father's legitimacy to rule, and a son deeply concerned, as the Henry IV plays demonstrate, with fatherly approval, and his speech calls the paternity of his soldiers into question, tying their own legitimacy to the matter of how well they emulate their own forefathers, the near-mythical soldiers at Crécy:

On, you noble English,
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof,
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument.
Dishonor not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you called fathers did beget you.
(TLN 1100-6)

By the end of the play, the repeated allusions have made Crécy a metonym for all English victory, one that even threatens to eclipse Henry's achievement at Agincourt. Immediately after Henry gives his battle a name, and thus its own place in the chronicle, Fluellen conjures a reminder of the earlier battle:

Then call we this the field of Agincourt,
Fought on the day of Crispin Crispianus.
Your grandfather of famous memory, an't please your majesty, and your great uncle Edward the Plack Prince of Wales, as I have read in the chronicles, fought a most prave pattle here in France.
(TLN 2620-25)

Haunting fathers, in Shakespeare's play, come to impel history itself.

In the broadest understanding of Tudor historiography, the deposition and murder of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, was the primal sin that could only be expiated by the Wars of the Roses. If Shakespeare had concentrated in his first tetralogy on that expiation, and on the redeeming power of the Tudor dynasty as represented by Richard III's defeat by Henry Tudor at Bosworth field, the second tetralogy focuses on the aftermath of the sin itself, which haunts both Henrys' reigns and is redeemed only contingently and temporarily -- as the epilogue of Henry V admits -- by the glory of the younger. Through the Henry IVplays, Shakespeare never lets his audience forget the ghost of Richard II; the guilt of his death shapes the character of Henry IV and impels the plots against him. The ghost is even imagined to join his power to the rebels that trouble Henry IV's reign: in 2 Henry IV, the Archbishop's uprising is "enlarge[d] . . . with the blood / Of fair King Richard, scraped from Pomfret stones" (TLN 264-65). King Henry IV's last advice to his heir is to avoid the dissension that troubled his own reign by using war to distract his subjects' attention from the usurpation of the throne:

Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels, that action hence borne out
May waste the memory of the former days.
(2H4 TLN 2750-52)

With his royal father's advice in mind, Henry's invasion of France, which makes up almost the entire action of Henry V, may be seen as a successful attempt to avoid Richard's ghost. But although it is mentioned only once in Henry V, the deposition of Richard sends ripples through the play, an undercurrent that loses no strength for being repressed. When Henry's lords and advisors discuss his claim to the throne of France, Charlemagne gets more attention than Henry's own father, whose usurpation of the throne is glossed over: Richard II and Henry IV are as conspicuous by their absence in the discussion as the prior two royal generations, Edward III and the Black Prince, are by their ubiquity. The bishops of Canterbury and Ely seem unable to refer to the civil wars that plagued Henry IV's reign in anything but oblique terms, but they nevertheless remind us in the very first lines of the play of the "scambling and unquiet time" of "the last king's reign" (TLN 42, TLN 40).

The most explicit expression of this haunting comes in Henry's prayer on the eve of Agincourt. Henry thinks of himself as complicit in, and his reign as dependent on, "the fault / [his] father made in compassing the crown," and he gives us here the play's only glimpse of his early reign, in which he seems to have been primarily concerned with laying Richard's ghost to rest: he has re-buried the murdered king's body in Westminster and devoted considerable treasure to praying Richard's soul out of purgatory. The climactic battle is staked on the wager that God will weigh these attempts favorably against the sin of Richard's murder, and the play suggests that the gamble is successful, though the epilogue reminds us that the ghost of Richard would continue to haunt England after Henry's glorious but all-too-brief reign.

25The epilogue to Henry Valso reminds us that Shakespeare had already dramatized that haunting, in the first tetralogy's depiction of the Wars of the Roses and the disastrous reign of Richard III. Just as Henry and his contemporaries struggle and ultimately fail to put the historical ghosts of past glories and murdered kings to rest, Shakespeare is also in competition with the shades of their past, haunted by ghosts of his own making. These ghosts suggest their presence in various ways, both subtle and obvious. The traitor Cambridge hints obliquely that his treason was motivated not primarily by gold, "Although I did admit it as a motive / The sooner to effect what I intended" (TLN 785-86). What he intended was to supplant Henry as king in favor of his own progeny, and as Shakespeare's audience would have known primarily from his earlier history cycle, that progeny was the house of York, one side in the civil wars that cycle dramatized. Shakespeare's unhistorical account of Suffolk and York dying in each other's arms serves as another reminder of the coming civil wars, and Shakespeare's previous dramatization of them: this York's son would kill this Suffolk's brother in those wars (see TLN 2495-2511 n.). Most ghostly of all is the appearance of "Talbot" as one of the names that Henry imagines becoming household words after the battle of Agincourt (F TLN 2297). No Talbot fought at Agincourt, and the fact that the name appears only in F suggests that it may appear in error. As Shakespeare's audience were well aware, however, a father and son of that name are the heroes of the French wars Shakespeare had depicted in 1 Henry VI; whether the slip was intentional or unconscious, the mention of Talbot is the result of the memory of the earlier play intruding into the representation of Agincourt (see TLN 2297 n.).

The most insistent ghost haunting Shakespeare's play is that of Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare's most enduring comic figure, who easily took top billing in the Henry IV plays: Falstaff's is the largest role in each, and in 2 Henry IV he has more lines and stage time than the king and Prince Hal combined. Although his role as a sort of chaotic surrogate father to Hal declines as the plays go on -- the two share almost no stage time in the second part, which ends with the newly-crowned Henry V's outright rejection of the fat knight and his banishment from the royal presence -- the audience would surely have expected his continued existence as a comic foil to the high rhetoric and international scope of the history plays. At some point when Henry V was in the planning stages, Shakespeare seems to have planned "to continue the story (with Sir John in it)," as the epilogue to the 1598 2 Henry IV, spoken by the actor playing Falstaff, promises (TLN 3345). The first audiences of Henry V could well be forgiven for any disappointment they may have felt for a play with a gaping Falstaff-shaped hole in it.

Some evidence suggests that the plan to include Falstaff as a character in Henry V may have survived beyond the 2 Henry IV epilogue. John Dover Wilson argues that in some earlier version, "Falstaff once larded the sodden field of Agincourt" but had been cut from the play, with much of his comic business transferred to Pistol. Dover Wilson points to two textual ghosts of Falstaff as evidence for this hypothesis. The act two chorus promises to shift the scene first to Southampton and then to France, but 2.1 and 2.3 take place in London instead. Following George Ian Duthie, Dover Wilson explained that this odd disjunction, which continues to puzzle editors, resulted from Falstaff's death having been inserted as an afterthought, and the Chorus's lines remaining unchanged (Wilson, Henry V113-15). Additionally, in 5.1 Pistol mentions the death of "my Doll" (TLN 2976), which many editors emend to "Nell," the name of Pistol's wife. Dover Wilson sees the Folio's reading as an oversight, explaining that when Pistol's cowardly soliloquy was delivered by Falstaff, the line referred to Doll Tearsheet, whom Pistol clearly despises (see TLN 575-77), but who associated enough with Falstaff to be called "his" at 2 Henry IV TLN TLN 3239 (Wilson, Henry V115).

Whether we accept Dover Wilson's hypothesis that Falstaff was cut from the play at a late stage, his absence is undeniably felt in both surviving versions of the play. Though unnamed in the first act, Falstaff is the chief of the "companies unlettered, rude, and shallow" to which the bishops complain that the youthful Henry was drawn (TLN 96), and since his influence lies behind the dauphin's mocking gift of tennis balls, he is an indirect cause of the war with France. Act two puts the business of courts and royal chambers aside for two scenes preparing for and reacting to Falstaff's death, scenes that are no less tragic for their low comic contexts or the Hostess's malapropisms. Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph are not only Falstaff's former companions, but also echoes of his swaggering and his equivocating cowardice, as are the bickering captains who, after all, do no more charging the breach in Harfleur's wall than the Eastcheapers do. Even during the battle of Agincourt, Gower and Fluellen ensure that "the fat knight with the great belly-doublet" (TLN 2571-72) is seldom out of thought. Falstaff may not lard the field of Agincourt, but his ghost certainly stalks it.

So heavily does the fat knight's ghost loom in the play without him that many standalone productions have found it necessary to include him even though Shakespeare did not. Both Laurence Olivier's film of 1944 and Kenneth Branagh's of 1989 include flashback sequences featuring lines from the Henry IV plays and casting George Robey and Robbie Coltrane as their respective Falstaffs; Olivier's film additionally dramatizes an original Globe audience vociferously complaining about Sir John's absence. Nicholas Hytner's 2003 National Theatre production featured Adrian Lester's Henry watching video of his younger self consorting with a Falstaff played by Desmond Barrit, who had memorably played the role at the Royal Shakespeare Company three years earlier.

30What happened to Falstaff? Why did Shakespeare not continue the story with Sir John in it, as promised? The historiographical tradition of Henry throwing off his youthful companions was as old as his reign itself, and through repetition it, like the likely apocryphal tennis ball anecdote, had become central to Henry's myth, but his rejection would not have precluded Falstaff joining the army and following the king at a distance as Bardolph and Pistol do. Falstaff's absence may have something to do with the departure of the actor who played him from Shakespeare's playing company. If, as Dover Wilson and (more extensively) David Wiles have convincingly argued, the character was created by the Lord Chamberlain's Men's principal comic actor Will Kemp, then Kemp's parting ways with the company sometime in 1599 might have occasioned a Falstaff-less rewrite of the play. On the other hand, there is no reason to suppose that Shakespeare was hampered by personnel difficulties in making the decision to kill Sir John. We have no evidence for why or precisely when Kemp left the company; he could as easily have parted ways with them as a result of Shakespeare having killed off one of Kemp's most popular characters (Wiles 117).

Practicalities of casting considerations aside, the critical tradition, for a century and a half, found Shakespeare's discarding of Falstaff to have been the single most important aesthetic decision in the play's composition. For many readers, Falstaff has been seen to haunt Shakespeare as much, if not more, than he haunted Henry. A. C. Bradley wrote in 1902 that Shakespeare intended us to approve of Henry's decision to discard Falstaff, but that by the time he wrote Henry V, the character of Sir John, and his audience's sympathies, had gotten beyond the author's control: "We wish Henry a glorious reign . . . but our hearts go with Falstaff . . . to Arthur's bosom or wheresomever he is" (260). In this assessment, Bradley echoes both the practical Samuel Johnson -- who remarked in his edition of 1765 that Shakespeare had to kill Falstaff because his imagination could "contrive no train of adventures suitable to his character" -- and the sentimental Maurice Morgann, whose long 1777 essay on Falstaff, in attempting to refute the opinion that Falstaff is a coward, established the tradition of seeking an emotional connection between Falstaff and the reader or audience.

Arguments such as Bradley's and Johnson's notwithstanding, surely when taken in the context of the play's composition in 1599, the absence of Falstaff must be taken as an intentional authorial decision. As James Shapiro has eloquently argued, the year 1599 was a turning point in Shakespeare's career, a year whose plays all seem to prefigure Hamletin their emphasis on the ghostly influence of dead father figures. At a time when he was turning from the histories and the comedies that had characterized his dramatic output for the past decade and toward a string of great tragedies and darker, more problematic comedies, the playwright was preoccupied with his own artistic past. For Shakespeare, Henry Vrepresents an attempt to lay the ghost of the history play, along with the ghost of Falstaff, to rest.