Book Review: Henry V

I have a confession to make. I don’t know what number Superbowl we are up to. And when it comes to reading the year of copyright in the end credits of films, I can never do it. Yes, it’s true—I struggle with Roman numerals. I don’t say this to garner sympathy, and I certainly don’t expect any monetary donations (though I would not refuse them), but I want encourage any readers out there who share my struggle: try William Shakespeare’s Henry V. The title is a real confidence-booster. Just one numeral.

Henry’s ascension to the English throne has seemingly transformed him: the youth has become a man, the careless prince a formidable ruler (a phenomenon my stepfather used to recommend to me as, “pulling your head out of your arse”. Well excuse me Terry for wanting to chase my dreams instead of work for you and your dumb landscaping company). When Henry finds out his inheritance includes the throne of France he decides to go claim it. The French send the young king a gift of tennis balls (the medieval equivalent of a video game console) and basically tell him to be a good boy and stay at home. Big mistake. Henry assembles his army and heads for the land of berets, baguettes, and unpronounced aitches. The first battle is tough, but Henry inspires his troops to victory. The night before the armies face off for round two, Henry walks among his men incognito to gauge their mood: vastly outnumbered, they are less than thrilled at the prospect of being massacred. Cue the greatest pep talk ever. Henry buoys the soon-to-be-fighting (and likely soon-to-be-dying) troops with an impassioned speech, persuading them they are the luckiest men on earth. Well, what do you know? The English David beats the French Goliath, and later the king charms the French princess and sweeps her off her feet. Everything’s coming up Henry.

Story-wise, this is not the best one you’ll hear from Shakespeare. It’s good, but it’s not the emotional roller coaster we’ve come to expect; it’s more of an emotional log flume ride. The plot plays second fiddle to the character of Henry himself, who provides the play’s brilliance and joy. He is a first-class hero: principled, strong, courageous and chivalrous. He epitomises masculinity (and if this play isn’t enough to convince you of Henry V’s manhood, visit the Tower of London and have a look at the size of the codpiece on his armour). I was so impressed with Henry V that I dressed as him for Halloween last year (I just added a cardboard crown to my Obi-Wan Kenobi costume).

One issue I had with Henry V is that a chunk of it near the end is written in French. Yes, the characters speaking were French, so full points to the bard for accuracy, but what about the poor reader? I got the gist of it—Henry gets the girl—but I feel like writing in another language was unnecessary and Shakespeare was just showing off. It’s like if Mozart stopped in the middle of his Sonata No. 11 and started making balloon animals. Well done Wolfgang; you are very clever, but I came here for the music, not a rubber poodle.

Henry V is adventurous and inspiring, and King Henry is a character well worth reading. An understanding of French is ideal, but not required. 8/10



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