Stagecraft—A Key Tool In Understanding Henry V

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

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

How does William Shakespeare use stagecraft and utilize this tool from the stage to create his plays? How does King Henry V manipulate the use of politics as theater and theater as politics to achieve his political ambitions? Read on to examine the dynamics of politics as theater and how Henry employs all the elements of good actor, director, and playwright in almost every major scene.

Picture showing Falstaff enacting the part of a king.
Falstaff enacts the part of the king. Sir John Falstaff is a famous fictional character in Shakespeare’s plays. Though primarily a comic character, Shakespeare in his characteristic manner lends depth to his portrayal too.
(Image: Johann Heinrich Ramberg / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Public domain)

The stagecraft tool aids in understanding King Henry V as he takes up several theatrical roles. As an actor, he plays the central character, he is also the director and script writer, deciding on the lines people would speak and how they would deliver the same.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s theater and stagecraft.

Stagecraft: Traitors Effect Their Own Accusation

In Act 2, Scene 2 of Henry V, the English army is about to board a ship to France. Three of the king’s trusted lords have turned traitors and plan to assassinate the king. When some of the loyal lords are discussing the king’s discovery of the conspiracy, the king enters with the traitors and some other knights.

The traitors are brazenly flattering the king praising the loyalty of his subjects and their admiration for the king. Though the king is aware of the conspiracy, he chooses to appear oblivious and delays their arrest. Henry listens to the flattery with ironic satisfaction and makes up a story to release a drunken man who criticized the king. But the traitors object and insist that the man be severely punished. Henry explains that such small crimes should be pardoned and punishment should be reserved for capital crimes.

Henry’s pretense allows him to expose the viciousness of the traitors and when Henry hands them the letters they think these are their special commands. They eagerly open the letters only to realize that the king and his court are aware of their treachery. When the traitors plead for mercy, Henry reminds them that the mercy that was alive him a few moments ago, has been suppressed on their advice. He goes on to say that their own arguments turned against them and compared them with dogs which bite their own masters. To trick the traitors to speak the very lines that they counseled against mercy, Henry deployed all elements of a good director, playwright, and actor. He effectively stagecrafted the traitors to speak against their own accusations. 

Learn more about the drama of ideas in Henry V.

Thorough Understanding of Politics as Theater

Henry has a thorough understanding of politics as theater and uses masterful theatrics to accomplish his intents. He creates an impression that he feels terrible because of the betrayal of traitorous noblemen whom he trusted. He states that he had given them due respect and treated them generously, with access to his thoughts, and hence equates the betrayal with an act of Biblical implication. Henry articulates that the nature of the treachery is so serious that it threatens not just him but the security of their kingdom. He explains he could probably forgive them as an individual but as a king would have to act in the best interest of his subjects and the kingdom. He convinces his audience that as a rational and level-headed king, he has to execute the traitors. In addition, the execution sends a clear signal to the other lords that treason in any form will not be pardoned.

The master of theatrics concludes by addressing the loyal nobles that the traitors have left such a blot that even the most virtuous amongst them would henceforth be viewed with suspicion. “Thus thy fall,” he says to the traitors, “hath left a kind of blot / To mark the full-fraught man and best endued / With some suspicion.” In some movie versions like that of Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film, the lords are uncomfortable and look at each other when the king addresses them.

Falstaff statue at the Gower Memorial, Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Falstaff statue at the Gower Memorial, Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
(Image: Caron Badkin/Shutterstock)

In doing so, Henry positions himself as a true student of Falstaff, who sees through all deceptions and is always a step ahead of his subjects and enemies.  His association with Falstaff, who was a true master of theatrics, has serious implications on his character.

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.

Masterful Manipulation to Achieve Political Ambition

Harfleur Town Hall, France.
Harfleur Town Hall, France.
Harfleur was the principal seaport of north-western France. It was later captured by King Henry V in the Battle of Agincourt.
(Image: VIGNERON/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Henry leads his army to the port town of Harfleur with the famous cry “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, / Or close the wall up with our English dead!” But his calls for breach don’t seem to yield results and his troops are nowhere close to victory. So, Henry delivers a fear-instilling speech to the governor of the town, on what the English men will do if they don’t surrender. The speech is so threatening that it compels instant surrender of the governor of Harfleur. The governor surrenders, not to Henry’s military might but to his oratory skills and ability to perform a scene of terror. Henry states:

“If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur Till in her ashes she lie buried.
. …………………………….. . . in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters; Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls, Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused Do break the clouds.”(III.iii.2–43)

Henry, a masterful manipulator uses inspirational tactics to motivate his soldiers and then threatens the governor of Harfleur with a powerful speech.  From a cynical angle, Henry can be seen as setting the stage to achieve every political ambition of his.  One of the greatest admirers of Falstaff among the Shakespeare scholars, Harold Bloom, describes Henry V as “counterfeit”, “Falstaff’s evil genius”, and “an amiable monster, a splendid pageant”.  But Henry is aware of this quality of his and makes use of it to rule the kingdom.

Learn more about approaching Shakespeare-the scene begins.

Common Questions about Stagecraft: A Key Tool to Understanding Henry V

Q: Who were the traitors in the history play Henry V?

The Earl Of Cambridge, Sir Thomas Grey, and Lord Scrope are the three English traitors who planned to assassinate Henry V before he set sail for France.

Q: Who is Falstaff?

Sir John Falstaff is a character in the second tetralogy of William Shakespeare’s history plays. He is the companion of Prince Hal but is disowned by the Prince when he ascends the throne as Henry V.

Q: What happened at the town of Harfleur?

Henry V, with his fleet of ships and troops, lands in the port town of Harfleur. The king leads his troops to the battle and he seizes the town.

Q: How many times did Henry V invade France?

Henry V, one of the renowned English kings, invaded France twice. One was the famous battle of Agincourt, where he led his outnumbered troops to a magnificent victory and then eventually secured control of the throne.

Keep Reading
Stagecraft & Participation: Key Tools in Understanding Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s Recipe of Powerful Key Tools
An Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Comic Tools
Themes in Henry IV through Play Comparison