Focus on "Henry V":

Navigating Digital Text, Performance, & Historical Resources


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Chronologically, Henry V is the fourth installment of William Shakespeare’s eight history plays, although it was the last history play to be written. There have been many productions of the play as well as many film versions, notably The Hollow Crown, which covers all eight histories, and Kenneth Branagh’s and Laurence Olivier’s films in which they both star as the titular king. Olivier was commissioned by the British government to make the film and boost British morale during World War II. One of the most curious and engaging aspects of his film is its movement back and forth from a historical Elizabethan stage to a period movie production. In his book On Acting, Olivier argues that “[i]n Henry V more than in any other play, Shakespeare bemoans the confines of his Globe Theatre … and all those short battle scenes, in a lot of his plays, are frustrated cinema.” By this he simply means that the medium of a stage cannot tell a story to the scope that a film can. James Hirsh writes that Olivier’s goal in taking advantage of the affordances of cinema “was to induce filmgoers to regard his film as superior to a performance at the Globe.” Unlike Olivier’s film, the play Henry V does not include actual battle sequences onstage – most stages are too small for that visual addition to the text. Instead, the character of the Chorus functions as the audience’s window into moments such as these at the top of each act. Olivier uses the Chorus as the narrator of the production to transition the film from the “wooden O” (Pro.14) of the Globe Theatre to the castles and rolling fields of France. Once away from “the confines of [Shakespeare’s] Globe,” Olivier works his own magic on people’s imaginations with sets, live animals, and cameo appearances by characters like Falstaff. He does this mainly by using the Chorus as a technical transition instead of a verbal one. This changes the medium of the story mid-film rather than simply offering the audience an invitation to participate through imagination. “Frustrated cinema” suddenly becomes movie magic, especially given Olivier’s desire for his audience “to get a restless feeling of being cribb’d and confin’d in the Globe’s wooden O, irritated by the silly actors speaking in their exaggerated way.” Olivier’s friend and former director William Wyler told him that “if [he] really want[ed] to shock or delight an audience, [to] get them a little bored first” before moving on to the heart of the production. Then, when the film moves from the playhouse to the real film, “there’s a tremendous feeling of relief and anticipation” among audience members. Olivier’s Chorus becomes reliable to the audience because the Chorus brings the audience to a place a realism and depth. The Chorus “never disruptively intrudes [it]self upon the sensibilities of the audience, but on the contrary, fades in and out of the action with an almost ethereal presence.” Because of the nature of film, the audience is immersed without having to think too hard about what it is processing. This immersion separates the film from the Chorus’s main role in the play, which is to fill in the audience’s visual gaps with information. A full battle complete with horses cannot be staged within the Globe simply because of size constraints. Shakespeare’s Chorus invites us to imagine them instead (Pro.27-28). When the Chorus transitions us to England and France, the cinematic magic seems real. The audience no longer needs to be convinced or encouraged to imagine. Important to note in the midst of Olivier’s cinematic choices regarding the Chorus is the difference between the Quarto and Folio texts of Henry V. Hirsh writes that

The 1600 Quarto [of Henry Vcontains neither the choral speeches nor act divisions. The version of the play in the 1623 Folio contains both the choral speeches and act divisions but the act divisions are not located in each case at the choral speeches. Surviving evidence clearly indicates that act divisions were inserted into most of Shakespeare’s plays at the time of the printing of the Folio, long after Shakespeare’s death. 

The Chorus has a complex textual history, one that Olivier replicates – though probably accidentally – by splitting and splicing the Chorus’s lines in his script. Olivier’s textual cuts and his placement of the Chorus’s speeches within the film illustrate the Chorus’s role: to help the audience disappear into the story of Henry V rather than simply to provide expository details at the top of each act.

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