When William Shakespeare was writing The Life of King Henry the Fifth, an extraordinarily famous and polarizing nobleman was on his way to Ireland to put down a very bloody and persistent rebellion. In the play, Shakespeare refers almost explicitly to Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, who was leading 16,000 English troops against the forces of the Irish revolutionary Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone.
This reference, incidentally, allows us to determine the time at which Shakespeare wrote the play—mid-1599—with unusual precision. That’s because there was only a brief period in which anyone in England was as sanguine about the Essex expedition’s prospects as Shakespeare has the Chorus seem in Henry V. Essex failed disastrously, and was later beheaded for plotting against Queen Elizabeth.
With its exuberant glorification of war and its idolization of King Henry V, Shakespeare’s play must have been presented as a patriotic rallying cry in its earliest performances. In fact, for the first 360 years of its existence, Henry V was most commonly performed at times when war was being contemplated by England or the United States.
But during the Vietnam Era, theatre makers began to regard the play’s enthusiastic patriotism and triumphalism as too earnest to be true. It seemed clear that the Chorus’s over-the-top praise of Henry and Henry’s unwavering belief in the rightness of his cause were meant by Shakespeare to be ironic. He wrote a play, the argument goes, that could not, on its face, appear to be anything other than a love poem to England and its military might.
But Shakespeare knew that the enlightened among his audience would see his disdain for war hiding just beneath the surface. How else could one explain the play’s contradictions, such as Henry’s threatening a besieged town’s civilians with systematic rape and torture, followed by his support of the execution of an old friend who had violated his order that no French civilians be robbed or harmed in any way? Can Captain Gower’s exclamation, “O ‘tis a gallant king!” immediately after reporting that Henry has ordered that every prisoner’s throat be cut be anything other than veiled sarcasm? This idea of a “secret” ironic play in the guise of an “official” patriotic one became the predominant interpretation.
It was also a widely held belief that any production of Henry V had to choose a side. That is, you had to present the pro-war official version or the antiwar secret version and commit fully to whichever interpretation you chose.
But I think the contradictions are in the play because Shakespeare saw that war was full of them. I don’t believe that the playwright intended Henry V to be either for or against war. As James Shapiro has written, Henry V is “not a pro-war play or an antiwar play but a going-to-war play.” War lets us see that a single person is capable of both the most horrible and most honorable intentions and deeds.
With my adaptation of the play, H5x7, I’ve tried to keep as many contradictions as I could fit in a Fringe-length version of the play. Henry the demigod and Henry the monster are not nearly as interesting to me as Henry the heroic, monstrous human.
Kevin O’Connell is the founding artistic director of Barabbas Theatre and the adaptor and director H5x7. In 2015 he directed the world premiere of Alexandra Petri’s Never Never in the Capital Fringe Festival. O’Connell holds a master’s degree in theatre history and criticism from the Catholic University of America and completed the directing course at the Studio Theatre Conservatory. He was the assistant dramaturg for Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2014 productions of Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2.
July 9 — July 24, 2016
Eastman Studio Theatre
Florida Ave NE & 8th St NE
Washington DC, 20002
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