Readers and Seers: Henry V

  • Gary Taylor


Many critics intensely dislike Henry V. The play and the protagonist now often arouse a pitch of opprobrium like that which Coleridge once reserved for Measure for Measure. But both the play and the protagonist have been applauded by centuries of audiences; indeed, critics have often clapped in the stalls before going home to hiss. Those who have defended the play and the character have done so in terms of the theatre, or — more recently — have defended the play at the expense of its hero (assuming or asserting that Shakespeare found him as distasteful as they do), or defended the character at the expense of the play (assuming or asserting that Shakespeare meant to make a hero but didn’t know how, and bungled it). The play and the character are still sometimes openly branded artistic failures; more subtly, and more commonly, ironic interpretations of the play all depend, one way or another, upon accusations of aesthetic failure: a failure of Henry’s rhetoric to convince, a failure of the subplot to be very funny, contradictions of detail or direction.


Language Lesson Final Scene English Army English Soldier Henry Versus 
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    Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1912), trs. and ed. James Strachey, rev. Angela Richards, Pelican Freud Library 6 (1976) 189.Google Scholar
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    Hazlitt similarly complained that Edmund Kean as an actor depended too much ‘on the expression of the countenance, which is a language intelligible only to a part of the house’ — A View of the English Stage; or, A Series of Dramatic Criticisms (1818), in Works, ed. P. P. Howe (1930–4) v, 179–80.Google Scholar
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© Gary Taylor 1985

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  • Gary Taylor

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