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.
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.
Here is a selection of some of the most famous quotes from Shakespeare's Henry V.
Chorus: 'O, for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!' (Prologue)
Archbishop of Canterbury: 'Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter, that, when he speaks,
The air, a chartered libertine, is still' (Act 1, Scene 1)
Mistress Quickly: 'Even at the turning o' the tide. (Act 2, Scene 3)
Mistress Quickly: 'As cold as any stone' (Act 2, Scene 3)
Dauphin: 'Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin,
As self-neglecting.' (Act 2, Scene 4)
King Henry: 'Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility,
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger:
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood' (Act 3, Scene 1)
King Henry: 'And sheathed their swords for lack of argument' (Act 3, Scene 1)
King Henry: 'I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England and Saint George!' ' (Act 3, Scene 1)
Boy: 'Men of few words are the best men' (Act 3, Scene 2)
Constable: 'Give them great meals of beef and iron and steel; they will eat like wolves and fight like devils.' (Act 3, Scene 7)
King Henry: 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.' (Act 4, Scene 3)