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King Henry V

A Critical Reader


Edited by Karen Britland and Line Cottegnies


Arden Early Modern Drama Guides

Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018

Hardcover. vi+322 p. ISBN 978-1474280105. £75


Reviewed by Anne-Valérie Dulac

Paris : Sorbonne Université



King Henry V : A Critical Reader offers an insightful anatomy of Shakespeare’s history play, bringing together a team of international scholars approaching most aspects of the play’s critical interpretations and adaptations from its first performance to the present.

The collection comprises four opening chapters presenting historical accounts and assessments of the play’s reception, performance and adaptation. James D. Mardock and Emma Smith’s chapters (“The Critical Backstory” and “The State of the Art”) show how the “conversation around Henry V is as robust in the twenty-first century as it has ever been” [19].

Mardock, who edited the play for the Internet Shakespeare Editions (2013), perhaps most notably discusses the varying interpretations of the differences between the Folio and Quarto versions of the play, arguing they are in fact two full and separate “authoritative plays” [27]. Mardock’s critical “backstory” is complemented by Emma Smith’s wide-ranging account of twenty-first century criticism. Smith focuses on how the play ties in with present-day geopolitics and anxieties before exploring a vast array of current critical avenues (religion, metatheatre, histories, nationalities, memory, gender, texts and performance). The chapter concludes on the importance of new productions in fostering new interpretations, which resonates nicely with the other two chapters in in this first part, devoted to the play’s performance history (Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise and Gisèle Venet) and screen adaptations (Sarah Hatchuel).

Miller-Blaise and Venet (who co-edited the 2008 French translation of the play for the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade editions) show how the play has been staged as a “mirror for political events” [49] across the ages in Britain before turning to the play’s exportation to the other side of the Channel and beyond, thereby testifying to the play’s growing global appeal.

Sarah Hatchuel’s contribution looks more specifically into a selection of screen adaptations of the play from a “contextual, aesthetic and ideological” perspective [102]. Hatchuel interestingly shows how television has consistently presented Henry V as part of a tetralogy as opposed to the stand-alone approach favoured by the cinema. The chapter also questions remediation by inquiring into Gregory Doran’s 2015 filmed production for the RSC. Also thought-provoking is Hatchuel’s final analysis of citations of the play in other films and television series, including some rather unexpected references taken from George of the Jungle 2,  Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Star Trek, thus highlighting the enduring popular and cultural appeal of Shakespeare’s play, if mostly confined to UK and US productions.

The second half of the collection gathers contributions pointing to “new directions”. John Drakakis’s chapter seeks to discuss religion in the play, an issue which the “religious turn” in early modern studies has markedly brought back to the critical fore. Drakakis lays bare the oscillation of the play between “the claims of ideology and the claims of religion” [147] and shows how the image of the exemplary Christian warrior prince is never fully devoid of anxiety, therefore leaving the issue of the “incontrovertible efficacy of providential power” suspended [155]. 

Christopher Ivic, in “Making and Remaking the British Kingdoms – Henry V, Then and Now”, examines the play’s “preoccupation with England’s imperial status” [157] and how it echoes anachronistic sixteenth-century conceptions of “empire”. Ivic reflects upon the fluidity of “Englishness” in the play and its emerging sense of a British identity resting upon the rejection of a monolithic national identity and the staging of communal identities instead.

Christine Sukic explores yet another kaleidoscopic dimension of the play by examining the “Politics of Criminality and Heroism in Henry V”. Building upon the instability of meaning she derives from beautiful close readings of some of the metaphors used, Sukic offers a fascinatingly precise analysis of the “rhetoric of obligation” and the reversibility of language. This in turn leads her to investigate the reversibility of heroism and criminality, its (only) “apparent opposite” [199].

In the next chapter, Elizabeth Pentland probes into documents “not usually consulted by Shakespeare scholars” [17]. Pentland investigates into the “rather different song” sung by fifteenth-century French poets and chroniclers about Azincourt. By showing how the play tones down the poor leadership and errors of the French side (the better to bring to the fore the English King’s own skills and strategy), Pentland brilliantly exposes yet another dimension of the “representational politics” [202] at play in Shakespeare’s staging of the king’s famous victory. This view from “the adversary’s perspective” (the title of the chapter) is perhaps the most striking attempt at opening up new and “defamiliarizing” views (a word used by the editors in their introduction) of Shakespeare’s history play and it is to be hoped it will be followed by further investigations into this “neglected corpus” which has so much to reveal still about the “manipulation of historical fact” [220].

The collection ends with a chapter on learning and teaching resources by Gillian Woods and Laura Seymour, who provide an incredibly useful list of available electronic and paper resources as well as thought-provoking suggestions of class discussions and workshops.



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