Dating the play

Henry V (1946) Henry (Paul Scofield) attempts to woo Katherine (Ruth Lodge). Photo by Angus McBean © RSC

Rebecca Brown explains how we know when Shakespeare wrote Henry V.


Henry V is rare among Shakespeare's plays in containing an explicit reference to a contemporary event which allows its date of composition to be fixed precisely. The Chorus of Act 5 compares Henry V's triumphant return to London from foreign wars with that of a certain famous soldier in Queen Elizabeth's service:
'As by a lower but high-loving likelihood,
Were now the General of our gracious Empress
As in good time he may - from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit
To welcome him!'
(Act 5 Scene 1)

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, is the General here receiving the praise of this lofty comparison. All London turned out to honour him and joyfully anticipate his military triumph as he and his troops departed to crush the Irish rebel, Tyrone, on 27 March 1599.

In fact, no such triumph was achieved and Essex returned in disgrace on 28 September 1599. The failure of his expedition had been apparent since June and therefore Shakespeare's optimistic allusion can only have been written in the first half of 1599. At around the same time, Shakespeare wrote Much Ado About Nothing and Julius Caesar.

The first printing of Henry V - in a quarto edition on 1600 - is clearly based on an imperfect reported text. It was not until the inclusion of the play in the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays that a reliable text was in print.


Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC
Photo by Angus McBean shows Henry (Paul Scofield) attempting to woo Katherine (Ruth Lodge) in the RSC's 1946 production of Henry V © RSC

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