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The History of the Play

The production of Henry V has been assigned, on very substantial evidence, to the year 1599. Francis Meres, giving a list of Shakespeare's plays in a book published in 1598, makes no mention of Henry V, although his list includes Henry IV. The play was entered on the Stationers' Register in August, 1600, and the first edition was published in that year. The reference to the 'wooden O' in line 13 of the Prologue is usually supposed to be an allusion to the Globe Theatre, which was completed in 1599. Most significant of all, the lines in the Prologue to Act V referring to the Earl of Essex must have been written and spoken during the earl's absence in Ireland, which extended from March 27 until September 28, 1599.

Three very imperfect editions of the play appeared prior to the publication of the First Folio in 1623. The First Quarto (1600) omits all the prologues, the epilogue, and several entire scenes. These and other omissions, notably in the long speeches, which are much curtailed, shorten the play by some seventeen hundred lines. The errors and absurdities of the edition are many; particularly in the scenes written in French (which is very 'fausse French' indeed as it appears in this volume), and in the prose scenes, where an heroic attempt has been made to transform the prose into poetry. It is now generally believed that the First Quarto is an imperfect edition of a shortened acting version of the play, and it may have been made up for the press largely from notes taken in the theatre during a performance. The Second Quarto (1602) and the Third Quarto, dated 1608, but really printed in 1619, are reprints of the edition of 1600, very slightly amended and without independent value. Modern editors accept the text of the First Folio (1623) as the most reliable, and have adopted the reading of the Quartos in only a few instances.

A funeral elegy on Richard Burbage, Shakespeare's most famous fellow actor, gives us the information that the part of King Henry was one in which Burbage won distinction. The unknown writer laments:


Poor Romeo never more shall tears beget
For Juliet's love and cruel Capulet;
Harry shall not be seen as king or prince,
They died with thee, dear Dick (and not long since.)


This is the only bit of information we have as to the early stage history of Henry V. The records of Sir Henry Herbert show that a play entitled 'Henry the 5th' was licensed for the stage in 1663, but it is not certain that this record refers to Shakespeare's play. We have positive record of a performance given at Covent Garden Theatre, February 23, 1738. Seven years later, at the time of the last Jacobite rising, the play was once more presented at the same theatre, perhaps by way of stirring the patriotism of the Londoners at a time when the Scots were marching on the city and France was supposed to be preparing to invade England. In this latter performance, the part of Pistol was played by the younger Cibber. Garrick presented the play at Drury Lane on December 16, 1747, but left the part of King Henry to Barry, appearing himself as the Chorus, in the costume of the day—'a full-dress court suit with powdered bag-wig, ruffles, and sword.'

Under the lavish management of Rich, Covent Garden gave a very elaborate production in 1761, including an interpolated scene, borrowed from Henry IV, Part 2, representing the coronation procession. The popular actress, George Anne Bellamy, walked in the procession as Queen. Another spectacular touch was added in the revival of 1769 at the same theatre by the introduction of the Champion (of the coronation ceremony) in full armor and on horseback. Drury Lane revived the play for the first time in twenty years in 1789, with John Philip Kemble as Henry; and the same actor performed the part from time to time during his career. He secured a telling stage effect at the close of Act IV by suddenly interrupting his prayer, at the sound of the trumpet, and rushing off the stage sword in hand. On March 8, 1830, Edmund Kean appeared at Drury Lane in the rôle of King Henry. His memory failed him during the performance and he was obliged to apologize to the audience from the stage. During the nineteenth century the play was performed also by William Macready, Samuel Phelps and Charles Kean. The production given by the latter at the Princess's Theatre in 1859 was a very ambitious undertaking and met with so great a success that the play ran to eighty-four performances. Kean attached a great deal of importance to historical accuracy. His setting for the siege of Harfleur was constructed after careful study of a Latin manuscript giving an account of the siege as seen by a priest who accompanied the army. A further spectacular effect was secured by transforming the description of Henry's return to London, as given by the Chorus, into an actual stage spectacle. Mrs. Charles Kean recited the prologues in the character of Clio, Muse of History. The most conspicuous production in England during the twentieth century was given by Lewis Waller at the Lyceum Theatre in 1900, at the time when the Boer war had stimulated British patriotism. Lily Hanbury appeared as Chorus in Waller's production.

In America, the first performance of the play of which we have any record took place at the Park Theatre in New York in 1804, with Cooper as King Henry. Macready and Waller brought their productions to this country from England, the latter in 1912. In 1876 John Coleman produced the play in New York at great expense, but it ran for only a week. Most noteworthy of the American performances is Richard Mansfield's magnificent presentation in 1900. The production opened at the Garden Theatre, New York City, October 3, after the most elaborate preparations, and had a very successful run, playing to crowded houses in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Mansfield stated that he was led to produce the play by 'a consideration of its healthy and virile tone, so diametrically in contrast to many of the performances now current.'

A great memorial performance of Henry V in London, May 4, 1916, attracted a 'full and enthusiastic' house, and evoked comments upon the contemporaneous effect of many scenes.