Henry V: Setting up, Reversal, and Defeat of Expectations

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

The important transformation of Prince Hal to King Henry V is reflected in William Shakespeare’s history plays. When young Henry V takes over the throne, what are the expectations of his people, the court, and even his enemies? Does Henry overcome the expectations against him, completely reverse and defeat them?

Statue of Prince Hal, Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire, England.
Statue of Prince Hal, who later came to be known as legendary King Henry V. (Image: David Hughes/Shutterstock)

Henry’s transformation from an irresponsible prince to a fine king took place in William Shakespeare’s Henriad: Henry IV Part 2. This important makeover is reflected throughout Henry V, where expectations are set with the old irresponsible Prince Hal in mind. One of the useful tools to understand these plays is the ‘understanding history’ tool. The tool specifically examines ways expectations are set up, which are completely reversed by the capable statesman in King Henry V.

Declaring a War on the French

Portrait of Dauphin of France
Dauphin of France who ridicules King Henry V, and is later by his armies at the battle of Agincourt.
Image: (British Library / Public domain)

In the second scene of Act 1 in the play Henry V, a delegation from France arrives at the English court in response to Henry’s claim to French lands. The King meets the delegation of ambassadors from France in his royal palace. The French prince wants to let Henry know that he is too young to stake claim to the French dukedoms. The French consider the new English king as immature and think Hal aka Henry V is still the ‘madcap prince’ of his earlier days. This is their expectation of Henry and the message from the Dauphin reads:

“… the prince our master
Says that you savour too much of your youth, And bids you be advised there’s nought in France That can be with a nimble galliard won;
You cannot revel into dukedoms there.”

To make matters worse, the French prince also sends a contemptuous gift of a chest full of tennis balls. This is a clear mockery of Henry’s wilder days, the gift pointing fingers at his sportive and irresponsible youthful days. Henry is quick to recognize this insult suggesting he is not a serious military threat to the French. 

Henry, being an intelligent and capable statesman recognizes that the entire court looks up to his response. Hence, the master of the stage of the art of politics makes full use of the opportunity to reverse and defeat the expectations that were set with Prince Hal on their minds. He delivers an impressive speech to a rapt audience and explains that his madcap days were a careful preparation for ascending the throne. Most readers of Henriad plays are aware of this.

Henry, without threatening, declares a war on France. He warns the delegates that the French prince has made a serious error in judgement by underestimating him. He says he would come to France not to play a set but to turn the tennis balls to gun-stones. Henry, further goes on to say that generations of French will curse the Dauphin’s disdain and regret this mockery of the English king:

“And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turn’d his balls to gun-stones; and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands;
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn.” (I.ii.282–289)

Learn more about Richard II-history and kingship.

St. Crispin’s Day Speech

The St. Crispin’s Day speech is delivered by Henry V to motivate the English army just before the great battle of Agincourt. It is considered the greatest speech of Henry’s career and one of the best in dramatic history. 

Martyrdom of Crispin.
The Crispin’s Day is a feast day to mark the martyrdom of the twin saints Crispin and Crispinian. It is also famously remembered for the Battle of Agincourt that was fought on this day. (Image: Aert van den Bossche/Public domain)

The English army is exhausted, grim, and demoralized as they are outnumbered by the French. As they expect to be fully slaughtered by the French, their young king enters to reverse and defeat this expectation and addresses the biggest audience of his life to motivate them. He starts by telling his men not to wish for more men and by asking the ones who are not ready to fight to leave. He offers to pay for their homeward journey as they are not worthy to die with his men. He then wishes that they are outnumbered because fewer men will share the greater honor of winning a historic battle. This convinces the soldiers that their honor would be in staying and fighting for the king.

Henry then shifts the plot from not fleeing the battle to fighting for honor and rouses courage in the soldiers by asking them to carve their place in English history, the theme of these plays. He inspires them by stating that the very act of participating in the battle has made them all family to the king himself. Though the final objective of the speech was to defeat the French, the speech also reminds men to act in unison against the greatest odds. Finally, Henry leads his men into the battle and defeats the French army.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Learn more about politics as theater in Henry IV, Part I.

Inspire by Painting the Future

The king also paints a rosy picture of the future, a future that would honor the soldiers when they emerge victorious from the battle. He says the man who survives ‘will stand a tip-toe when this day is named, and will strip his sleeve and show his scars’ saying I had these wounds on Crispin Day while the ones that refused to wage the battle will ‘hold their manhoods cheap’. By repeatedly reminding the soldiers that the battle will happen on St.Crispin’s Day, the King sets the stage for a historical moment even before it occurs.

“But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names. Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester, Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d. This story shall the good man teach his son; And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day.” (IV.iii.40–67)

Learn more about Henry IV, Part 2-contrast and complexity.

Common Questions about Henry V-Setting up, Reversal, and Defeat of Expectations

Q: What type of play is Henry V?

Henry V is a history play, the last of the eight history plays written by William Shakespeare. Part of the second tetralogy of Shakespeare’s history plays, Henry V tells the story of the famous king of England, with emphasis on events immediately before and after the battle of Agincourt.

Q: Is Shakespeare’s Henry V accurate historically?

Henry V is one of the important plays written by Shakespeare on the ‘Hundred Years War’ waged by the English kings. However, the play is one-sided, especially Shakespeare’s treatment of the French.

Q: What is St. Crispin’s Day?

St. Crispin’s Day, a feast day for the Christian saints falls on October 25. It is, however, synonymous with the battle of Agincourt, which was fought on 25 October, 1415 by the English troops.

Q: What is the summary of the play Henry V?

While the earlier plays depicted Henry V as a madcap prince, this play focuses on the glorious expedition to heroism of its central figure, Henry V. He invades France after an insult from the French Dauphin, delivers the magnificent St. Crispin’s Day speech and wins the battle against the French.

Keep Reading
The Transformation of Prince Hal into King Henry V
Hal in Henry IV: How Kings Are Made
Themes in Henry IV through Play Comparison
King Richard II: Understanding Shakespeare’s History Plays