Shakespeare's sources


Performance history expert Rebecca Brown investigates the sources which inspired Shakespeare's Henry V.

Shakespeare was sure of a popular success in taking Henry V as his subject. We know of three other plays about the great military hero already in circulation in late 1580s and early 1590s. The existence of two of these is known only on the strength of brief contemporary references but the text of the third has survived and its anonymous title page announces its subject:
'The Famous Victories of Henry the fifth: Containing the Honourable Battell of Agin-court: As it was plaide by the Queenes Maiesties Players.'

This anonymous play lays uncomplicated stress on the comic and romantic aspects of the story, beginning with an account of Henry's madcap youth before moving onto his reformation and victories in France. Like Shakespeare's play, it presents both king and commoners and it, too, has a wooing scene between the victorious English king and the Princess of France.

As with his other English history plays, Shakespeare drew closely on Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, first printed in 1577 and revised and enlarged in 1587.

The complicated explanation of the Salic Law, given by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Shakespeare's play, is almost a direct versification of that given in Holinshed. Edward Hall's The Union of the two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York, first printed in 1548, is the other chronicle history from which Shakespeare took his material.

There is no account in either of these chronicle histories of the king visiting his army incognito on the eve of battle. Here, Shakespeare is following dramatic rather than historical tradition - there are many examples in plays of the 1590s of the disguised ruler moving, unknown, among his subjects. Shakespeare used the device again later in his career in Measure for Measure. Classical sources also provided models for such actions. The wakeful Agamemnon of Homer's Iliad walks through his camp, encouraging his soldiers on the night before a decisive battle. Shakespeare's imagination would have been engaged by this in George Chapman's translation, Seven Books of the Iliad of Homer. Chapman published this in 1598 and dedicated his work to the Earl of Essex.

Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC
Photo by Ellie Kurttz shows Henry (Geoffrey Streatfeild) preparing an arrow in the RSC's 2007 production of Henry V © RSC

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Teaching Shakespeare