Focus on "Henry V":

Navigating Digital Text, Performance, & Historical Resources

Introduction: Rewriting History

Shakespeare’s plots were – for the most part – not dreamt up by the Bard himself. Whether reading histories of Britain or re-telling stories from Plutarch, Shakespeare took historical information, stylistic notes, and other information from a variety of earlier materials, including chronicle histories, ballads, romances, poems, and other dramatist’s plays, henceforth referred to as sources, for use in his plays. Modern scholars speculate that Henry V uses materials from Edward Hall’s Chronicles (1548, 1550), Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577, 1587), and the anonymous Famous Victories of King Henry V (1580s) – as well as minor sources like poetry and music. 

Rather than react to this news with a twenty-first century mindset, however, it is important that we adjust our approach to originality and authorship to a sixteenth century mindset. In much the same way that contemporary film-makers, novelists, and dramatists use Shakespeare as inspiration for their own works, Shakespeare more than likely used earlier texts like histories, contemporaneous plays, poetry, and music, among other items, to construct plots that would remain familiar to his audiences, even as he redeveloped characters, their relationships, and generated lyrical and verbally rich language.

Shakespeare’s The History of Henry V – Shakespeare’s history play completing the Henriad tetralogy (comprising Richard II, Henry IV pts. 1 and 2, and Henry V) and describing the events of Henry V’s rule leading up to the Battle of Agincourt – demonstrates this renegotiation of sources. Here, readers must negotiate three levels of fact: reconciling historical fact to the version of history remembered by the English and again to the version given by Shakespeare. This chapter foregrounds those sources that scholars speculate make up the middle tier of this negotiation of fact: those items that were part of the cultural zeitgeist in Shakespeare’s time and that might have influenced Shakespeare’s writing of the play.

This page references: