Henry V, as Shakespeare wrote him, performed one of the most radical personal transformations in the history of the British monarchy. In his adolescence Hal scorned the austere company of his father, Henry IV, who was plagued by threat of civil unrest and racked by self-doubt, guilt and the insecurity of his position on the throne. Hal chose instead to spend time in a tavern – the Boar’s Head – in East Cheap revelling in the company of whores, partying hard, making mischief and behaving badly.
Chief among his partners in crime, a merry band of jesters and fools, was the jolliest fat man in English literature: old Jack Falstaff, a man of great girth and even greater humour. They drank each other under the table, long and late into the night, pulling pranks and picking pockets – all behaviour unbecoming of a future king.
Hal was reprimanded and publicly shamed by his enraged father, who became frustrated by his son’s appalling reputation, in a kingdom riven by political insecurity, at a time when civil war was imminent. Northern nobles, led by Northumberland and his son Harry Percy (“Hotspur”), wanted Henry IV deposed and replaced. Henry IV needed Hal’s support.
This civil strife came to a head in 1403 at the Battle of Shrewsbury where, to the surprise of all around him, Prince Hal showed his true colours and emerged as an exemplary warrior. He fought like a man possessed. He defeated and killed the rebel Hotspur. These domestic military exploits were intimations of the man he was to become.
Hal was never the same after Shrewsbury. He returned to the Boar’s Head, but the old life suddenly seemed reckless and empty, and Falstaff, whose irresponsibility had once seemed so appealing, seemed like a sad, lonely old man. Hal was changing, and his father was dying.
Upon the death of Henry IV, Prince Hal became his father’s son. At his coronation, he rejected his former associates and publicly expressed his shame at his own wayward youth.
One of his first acts as King Henry V cemented his reputation forever. Firm in his inheritance of the English Crown (where his father had been a usurper), he contested the throne of France, to which he laid claim by birthright and ancestry. The military campaign was long and arduous, depicted by Shakespeare in two set-pieces: the siege of Harfleur and the Battle of Agincourt.
Henry V’s victory at Agincourt is one of the most famous in English military history: the odds were against him; French outnumbered English by thousands, and Henry’s men were dying of starvation and dysentery. Henry’s victory was a feat of extraordinary individual bravery and impeccable and daring strategy.
What distinguished him, above all, were his qualities as a leader: his courage, his rhetoric, his authenticity, his self-sacrifice. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
That I have been allowed to utter these immortal words on film is a source of great pride. Prince Hal/Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most fascinating characters, simply because the journey and arc of the character are so extreme and intense.
I loved working with Jeremy Irons, playing out the intermittently fractious and intimate dynamic between a father and his son. I also loved working with Simon Russell Beale (Falstaff) and Julie Walters (Mistress Quickly) in the tavern scenes, some of the most enjoyable and spirited in all of Shakespeare’s work.
The greatest challenge and thrill of performing these plays on film, for today, is the accessibility of the language and the truth of the action. The battles are as real as we could make them: horses, archers, swords, snow, mud and blood. These films are about power and politics, princes and warrior poets. Shakespeare was the most compassionate and intelligent dramatist of his day. That compassion and intelligence still resonate in ours.
The Hollow Crown: Henry V will be shown on 21 July (BBC2). The cast includes John Hurt, Julie Walters and Richard Griffiths.