Henry V

by William Shakespeare

Screenplay and Direction
by Kenneth Branagh 1989

Discussion Questions

Scene 1: The Churchmen and Henry
1. What is the concern of the Churchmen? What bill do they fear might be passed by parliament? Why?

2. Why does Shakespeare begin the play with this discussion? What does the bill that is before parliament have to do with the possible war with France?

3. Do the Churchmen favor a war with France? Why or why not?

4. What do we learn of Henry V, and his power, from this discussion between the Churchmen with which the play opens?

Scene 2: The Decision to Invade France
1. Why does Henry call in Canterbury before he sees the French ambassador?

2. Does Henry have a valid claim to the French throne? Does Shakespeare, and Branagh in his film, call Henry's claim into question?

3. Why does the Dauphin send Henry tennis balls? Is this an appropriate present for a monarch? Or for Henry in particular? How does henry put the gift to good use in his message to the Dauphin? Might Henry's audience for his response to the Dauphin be his own nobles who are present?

4. What factors or concerns go into the decision to go to war with France?

5.Notice in the council-chamber scene in Branagh's film how many times the councilors' eyes dart back and forth between one another. Exeter's eyes seem particularly telling in two instances: first, just before the "the summer's sun" line, he signals something to the bishop, and second, he fixes a steady gaze upon the king during and after his "Your brother kings," remark. Notice also the continued attention of the camera on the two clergymen. What is indicated about the "politics" of this scene by Branagh's direction?

6. Henry in charge, making the decision about the war? To what extent do others control his decision? What factors operate in the decision (including the Dauphin's gift of the tennis balls)?

7. In general, what are the restraints on the king's power, which emerge from the first two scenes of the play?

8. What qualities of leadership does Henry demonstrate in this scene? How does Branagh's direction contribute to this issue?

Scene 3: Henry's Battle Speech at Harfleur

1. To what sentiments does Henry appeal in his speech to his soldiers? Compare Henry's rhetoric to that of Coriolanus to his soldiers outside of Corioli. What differences do you see in the two speeches?

2. Listen to Branagh giving the speech to the troops--does it not even make your own blood rise? Shakespeare here demonstrates that poetry can be a decisive military factor. Of course, its power is not only in the choice and arrangement of the words, but in the way it is spoken. This leads us to ask this: if Branagh can stir us up with his acting, is Henry doing the same with his troops, or is he really feeling this excited and confident?

Scene 4: Taking Harfleur
1. In the speech to the governor, what is Henry's threat, and what is the strategy behind using it? Would Henry order his soldiers to pillage, rape, and massacre if Harfleur continued to resist? Or is his speech here, in their hearing, an implicit invitation to do so?

2. Contrast Henry's command for the governing of Harfleur once it surrenders with the threats he made before the city. What does the contrast indicate about Henry's military leadership?

Scene 5: The Night before Agincourt
1.Describe henry's relationship with the nobles in the army, including his brothers. What sort of message does he attempt to convey regarding the upcoming battle?

2. Is Henry afraid? The Chorus relates that before the battle of Agincourt Henry appeared before his men "with cheerful semblance." And after speaking with Erpingham, Henry muses to himself about how "cheerfully" he speaks. Is Henry putting on a cheerful face for his men? If he is afraid, by what power is he putting on such a semblance?

3. What is on the minds of the English soldiers before the battle? Why are they willing to fight in this war?

4. Should the common soldiers judge the justice of the war? Are there limits to what the king can justly command them to do?

5. In what ways does Henry encourage his soldiers to take responsibility for their own souls? Does Henry deny all responsibility?

6. Is Henry's argument about the good that war provides a valid one? Is he trying to persuade himself as well as his soldiers?

7. What does Henry's refusal to accept ransom if captured indicate about his character as king?

8. What is the issue of the quarrel between (disguised) Henry and Williams? Why is the issue important to the play?

9. Henry rhetorically asks "What have kings that privates have not too, save ceremony?" But is this correct? Is this all that kings have that private men do not? More importantly, exactly what sorts of things and behaviors is Henry talking about when he speaks of ceremony? What is the political purpose of ceremony, and why is it effective? Is the ceremony speech a "grass is always greener on the other side" complaint by a rather fortunate man feeling sorry for himself? Or does Henry have a real charge to bring against Ceremony, which he describes as an "idol" and a "proud dream"?

10. What does Henry's prayer reveal about his character?

Scene 6: The Saint Crispin's Day Speech
1. What reason does Henry give for not wanting even one man more in his army?

2. What promises does Henry make to the common soldiers in order to muster their courage for the fight? To what passions does he appeal?

3.What is the value of glory won on a battlefield? Does it lie in proving one's courage or in being remembered, or in both? Or is there something else in addition to these about glory, perhaps even something impossible to express rightly with any but a poet's words?

Scene 7: Henry's Courtship of Katherine
1. What effect might Burgundy's speech have on the negotiations? What effect does Shakespeare's inclusion of Burgundy's speech have on the play and its themes of fighting and war?

2. Why does Henry send his lords to the negotiating table and choose to stay with Katherine? Does this show his political naivete and innocence, or his political acumen?

3. Must Henry court Katherine if her marriage to him is a part of the peace negotiations? What does his desire to court Katherine reveal about his character?

4. What does this scene between Katherine and Henry suggest about what their marriage will be like? Is Henry manipulating Katherine with his rhetoric that he is just "plain soldier" and "plain king," or could his playfulness reflect his perception that he has something to learn from her, and through his relation with her?

Paper topics
1. On the night before Agincourt, Henry (disguised) argues to the soldiers he meets that the king is a man "as I am." What argument does he make? Is it valid? Is it ironic? How does Henry in this scene with the soldiers demonstrate both his common humanity and his superior virtue?

2. In the conversation Henry has with the common soldiers before the Agincourt, the question of the justice of the war arises, and the responsibility the king bears if the war is an unjust one. Is the issue of the justice of this war and the king's responsibility resolved in this scene, or even in the play as a whole? What factors bearing on this issue arise in the play?

3. In his St. Crispin's Day speech, Henry refers to the men with him at Agincourt as "a band of brothers." And the Chorus in the prologue to Act IV describes Henry's encouragement to those he meets as "brothers, friends, and countrymen." In what senses is "brother" used in this play, and to what political effect?

4. To what extent should a political leader be an actor? Recall why Coriolanus felt a leader shouldn't be an actor at all, and recall several instances when Henry V employs acting.

5. What qualities make Henry a successful king? Use specific examples of how Shakespeare shows that Henry possesses these qualities.

6. Why does Shakespeare end the play with what is in effect a love scene? Is love simply another area of control and domination, so that courtship is war by another name, or are marriage and family appropriate blessings that the harsher aspects of life make possible?

first reading selection from Henry V

second reading selection from Henry V

third reading selection from Henry V

Guide to unit 2

back to unit 2