Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Henry V in Performance

By Carol Kelly

Arguably there are two memorable film productions of Henry V. Thefirst  appeared in 1944 and was directed and produced by Laurence Olivier who also took the title role. The film was produced during World War 2 and sets a patriotic, even jingoistic note, with the beleaguered English troops on the eve of the battle clearly reminiscent of Dunkirk. Deliberate omissions (such as Henry’s order to kill all the prisoners) paint the English as brave and courageous, overcoming the odds to defeat the arrogant French. Given the critical moment in European history, the use of this play as wartime propaganda is clear and understandable.

The second film starred and was directed by Kenneth Branagh in 1989. This version, while still presenting Henry as a brave leader of his troops, reveals the harsh and gruesome side of warfare. Branagh sets the battles on rainsoaked fields and plays down the comedic moments to create a consistently dark, brutal and gritty atmosphere. Due to the nature of film, Branagh is able to use flashbacks to include  insights into Henry’s personal journey from fun-loving adolescent to responsible Prince and leader of men.

The current production of the play currently in performance at the Globe in London offers a slightly different take. Although the patriotic element is still evident, the production presents a nuanced depiction of all the ambiguities of human nature that Shakespeare loved to explore. The horror and the honor are both present  but they are depicted alongside each other with subtlety and humor. The Chorus, delivered by a serving woman, sets the tone that we are part of her story and the audience is drawn into the drama as it unfolds. The rallying cry unites a diverse nation of Welsh, Irish and Scots, aristocrats and rogues alike, against a common enemy but more importantly behind their King. The call to arms has some element of reluctant resignation but is powerful and so personal that I felt that had Henry marched out of the theatre, half the audience would have marched with him! Perhaps this can be attributed in part to Jubilee fever, combined with the spike in national pride brought about by the celebrations of  London 2012!

The centerpiece of the call to arms is the St. Crispin Day speech and the delivery of this speech is key to the interpretation of the play. As such, it is a perfect place to introduce young students to Shakespeare’s language. Experimenting with subtext, tone, and inflection when speaking these words aloud and on their feet will allow students to appreciate the power of language, to discover layers of meaning and most importantly, to appreciate the glorious poetry. How did the past film productions speak to their own moment? Which interpretation rings true for students today? How do students living in a country fighting a distant war react to such a call? What would their own production look like?

Find out more about how performance-based teaching can bring Shakespeare’s words to life at www.folger.edu

Carol Kelly is Folger Education’s Festivals and Programs Manager. She arranges workshops for teachers around the country, and organizes our Secondary School Festival each spring, as well as our appearances at National Conferences like NCTE.

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