Watching ‘Henry V’

I came across this article on watching an understudy play Henry V at the Folger production of Henry V from a season or two ago. As it happens, I saw that same production and also saw it with the understudy.

The early reviews had raved about the original actor and his commanding performance. The article writer was very hard on the understudy (though it should be said, I am pretty sure that the performance I saw was neither of the ones she saw). I actually liked him, though, and for many of the reasons that she did not.

I do not think it is set in stone that Henry is a confident king when the play begins; that he had exorcised all his demons in the previous, relevant plays (Henry IV, Parts  I and II). I liked this uncertain king. A running theme in many Shakespeare plays is the conflict between the medieval and the modern. Romeo is conflicted by the medieval requirement for retribution and modern ideas of order (and also marrying for love, but that’s another topic). Hamlet is the quintessential character caught by that conflict: the warlike, medieval man that is the ghost of his father versus a Hamlet that needs to understand why and who questions ideas of valor and vengeance.

Why can’t Henry V be similarly conflicted? On the edge of the renaissance and the end of the high middle ages, is it such an outlandish interpretation that he could question his own fitness to be a medieval man of action?

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