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Historical Accuracy of Henry V by William Shakespeare: Analytical Essay

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Henry V, also known as Henry of Monmouth, is one of the most well-known kings that have ever ruled under the English crown. Henry V was made into a play from William Shakespeare, which focused on his domination of France, and the patriotic homage to the heroic king. The degree of how accurate the play is is a more complicated historical understanding for a common person to be reading. When in fact there is a lot to dig into when reading or watching Henry V, although for William Shakespeare in the time period he wrote this he manages to get a majority of the actual historical events to be almost spot on but misses some important details. The accuracy of the play is shown through the events King Henry V has gone through, but they were rushed in a span of a couple months, also the truth of his intentions and purposes for starting a war with France where made up.

Before the King Henry V goes to war with France, he was given tennis balls from the king of France.

King Henry

What is the treasure, uncle?

Exeter

Tennis balls, my liege.

(act 1, scene 2, line 262-263)

This was the biggest insult possible to the newly named king, King Henry, which had motivated him to take the French crown as his own. But in fact, the true reason was not simply because of tennis balls, this was made to make Henry become an underdog for him to grow into a more righteous king. The real reason for King Henry to take the French crown was for several reasons, he needed to improve the income of his kingdom by gaining lands that could produce revenue by growing certain foods. He also wanted to take men with high social standings such as noblemen and possibly the dauphin, to make a ransom or to have the king of France extort money in exchange of their lives. It is also stated that lords in the region of Normandy had made a promise to Henry that he could take their lands when they die, but the King of France had intervened by taking the lord’s lands and confiscating them instead. [1] The historical accuracy of Shakespeare’s part is simply for Henry’s underdog look, if the king went to war over something so childish then the shoe would’ve fit the foot for him being so immature.

Before Henry V went to Southampton, there was a plot, which was named The Cambridge Plot. This plot was made by three conspirators and was led by the Earl of March. The reasoning behind this plot was because Earl of March was the heir to Richard II and was taken by Henry IV, so Earl of March secretly plotted with Sir Thomas Grey and Baron Scrope. They planned on killing the king and his three brothers before they headed onto a ship to head to Southampton, but the plot was found out by the king himself from the Earl of March revealing the plan to him. Later that day Henry V executed all three of them and put their heads on spikes for the public to see.[2] In the play by Shakespeare, there is a chorus which briefly skims over the matter and states

“There are three corrupt men. One is Richard, Earl of Cambridge, the second, Henry, Lord Scroop of Marsham, and the third, Sir Thomas Grey, knight, of Northumberland. They are in a conspiracy with France and will kill this best of kings with their own hands in Southampton before he sails for France.” (act 2 prologue line 20-25)

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The conspirators had nothing to do with France and it was for self-promoting reasons, which was for the Earl of March to be the rightful king, which in fact he was since Henry IV took the throne from Richard II, so it was because of revenge for him losing the throne altogether. Shakespeare most likely made it for Henry V to give him more of a reason to truly go after the King of France.

The Siege of Harfleur from historical background took roughly six weeks, but it was not foreseen of how hard of a task it was going to be, Harfleur was incased by a wall with twenty-four towers, that enclosed 21 hectares. It also had a trench filled with water and defended ports. To put into perspective the population of the town was roughly 5,000 people, they were determined to hold out again any foreign army. The structure of the castle made the inhabitants confident enough to reject Henry’s initial request, and that was for them to surrender. Henry then went out to siege; they began by surrounding the town which helped them by preventing any reinforcements or possible supplies. They continued to pounce the castle by shooting the walls with catapults, while the defenders held out against the attack but left massive damage to the actual castle stated by the author of Gesta Henrici Quinti (The Deeds of Henry V) saying

“really fine buildings, almost as far as the middle of the town, were either totally demolished or threatened with inevitable collapse”. (page 39) This made Henry move to more aggressive matters such as digging holes and trenches under the castle to make them purposefully collapse the walls, the defending people of Harfleur worked hard as possible by counter mining and repairing the wall as good as they could. Near the end of the siege the English were getting very ill from diseases, and the deaths started to add up, they soon were able to get over the walls by using ladders from dwindling down the Harfleur people. From Shakespeare’s play, he moves along with this fight very quickly; he mildly mentions the digging with

“To the tunnels? Tell the duke it is not good to come to the tunnels because see, the tunnels are not according to the strategy of war.” (act 3 scene 2 line 56-58)

Shakespeare also mentions none of the warfare that was used such as the catapults or even how they truly lost. The only thing that is truly remarkable from his work is that before the Harfleur surrender King Henry threatens them by killing all of the people, raping the women, and putting babies on pikes. The religion King Henry followed was an early form of Christianity, the early religion which has many religious books that they followed with one sticking out the most, which is the book of Deuteronomy. it is the fifth book in the Jewish Torah, and knowing that King Henry was a religious man, chapter 20 verses 10-16 states,

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock, and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. 16 However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.

Whereas the people that lived in Harfleur could be put to death if they did not surrender to him due to his bloodline of being the rightful King of France.

And after an abortive Lollard conspiracy in 1414 failed to kidnap Henry V at Eltham Palace in Greenwich, heresy was equated with treason against the state and lost all political credibility.

  1. ‘Henry V of England.’ New World Encyclopedia, . 19 Dec 2017, 17:39 UTC. 8 Jan 2020, 22:55.
  2. “The Cambridge Plot, 1415” Britain Express, . 08 Jan 2020,

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Historical Accuracy of Henry V by William Shakespeare: Analytical Essay. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/historical-accuracy-of-henry-v-by-william-shakespeare-analytical-essay/
“Historical Accuracy of Henry V by William Shakespeare: Analytical Essay.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/historical-accuracy-of-henry-v-by-william-shakespeare-analytical-essay/
Historical Accuracy of Henry V by William Shakespeare: Analytical Essay. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/historical-accuracy-of-henry-v-by-william-shakespeare-analytical-essay/> [Accessed 2 Feb. 2023].
Historical Accuracy of Henry V by William Shakespeare: Analytical Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 2]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/historical-accuracy-of-henry-v-by-william-shakespeare-analytical-essay/
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