Playing Henry V in Parts with Georgia, Thies and Esmeralda



In conjunction with Shakespeare and Sisters’ student-led performance of Henry V, held at Lancaster Castle, we have been practising ‘Reading in Parts’ during summer term seminars. ‘Reading in Parts’ is an engaging activity that firstly involves all participants to only have the lines from their own roles within the script with only a small cue that includes the last few words of the previous character speaking, and secondly, involves the physical and verbal embodiment of said characters.
In this blog, we will discuss the play overall, our understanding of it from the seminar readings, how we found the development of our characters across, and the skills we learnt whilst reading in parts.


Plot outline 


Set against the backdrop of 15th-century Hundred Years’ War, William Shakespeare’s “Henry V” follows the rise of the young and determined king Henry V. The play shows King Henry V and his embark to conquer France. As the play unfolds, we see a development to Henry’s character and simultaneously a development of his desire to assert English power and claim the French throne. Against the historical context of power dynamics and military strategy, Shakespeare intricately weaves themes of honour, loyalty, and the burdens of leadership. Furthermore, with the use of an extensive cast and elaborate character development, Shakespeare achieves to reinforce the moral ambiguity of war and the complexities of human nature. Each character in the play, from the crude and reckless Pistol to the disciplined and honourable Fluellen, serves as a foil to Henry, highlighting different facets of leadership and morality. Henry’s transformation from a wayward prince to a charismatic and resolute king mirrors an exploration of personal growth and the responsibilities of rulership, which ultimately lead to an emphasis of the nobility of sacrifice and the glory of victory amidst the grim realities of war. As the journey of Henry’s venture unfolds, culminating in the Battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare crafts a narrative that celebrates military skill while also questions the morality and ethics of conquest. 


Reading in parts 


When reading in parts it is difficult to comprehend the play at first. Students are typically used to having complete scripts on hand as we study them, taking the time to analyse Shakespeare’s characters, to focus on this aspect in combination with deep listening was challenging. Participation pushed us to actively engage with the play and the motivations of our characters. The events of the play feel more vivid, I had a stake in the activity of the play. It was like the characters had stopped being ideas and were instead embodied. Reading in parts allowed for breaks to ruminate on our characters and the plot. After each seminar, it became an effective way to learn, and envisaging the play improved greatly.


Thinking about Staging Without a Stage


As we were only reading the script, rather than actually performing the play on a stage, we took intervals to think about how the scene would play out on stage. Firstly we spoke about how the Siege of Harfleur would look, with France being higher up than the English. Due to the complex nature of the scene we actually ended up blocking this out:

This picture depicts King Henry V enacting his long speech to rally the English Soldiers.



This picture depicts the English Soldiers besieging Harfleur.



We found this to be a really fun exercise that helped us to use our imagination as to how we would stage this scene if we were to ever perform a full production, and also to understand the script better.
Another scene we spoke about was the very last scene where Henry and Katherine discuss a kiss. Henry V says ‘O Kate, nice customs curtsy to great kings’ in response to Katherine being hesitant to kiss before marriage. This suggests an element of force, and this was interesting to imagine staging. Some ideas varied Henry grabbing Katherine and forcing himself upon her; to Henry even holding a knife behind his back that only the audience could see to invoke a sense of threat. This application allowed us to further embody the characters and their motivations.




Interviewer: I’m here with three wonderful Lancaster University English Literature students to discuss their experiences playing their roles in an amateur production of King Henry V. Please introduce yourselves!


Georgia: Hi, I’m Georgia and I’m a first year English Literature student. During this experience I played the parts of King Henry V and Princess Katherine.


Esmeralda: I’m Esmeralda, a first year Theatre and English Literature student and during this term I played the character of Pistol.


Thies: Hi I’m Thies, a first year English Literature and Philosophy student and I played Exeter during this production. 


How did the characters you were playing develop over the course of the play?


Georgia: During the course of the play I balanced two different characters. For the first half of the play I embodied King Henry, responding to the French Dauphins Tennis ball insult. His response was to set off the motions to invade France, clearly displaying his character as a strong leader – which is very different to the original nonchalant character described before he became King. He also has his own old friends killed in Act 2, showing his ruthlessness and determination to be a fair and just leader, not playing favourites. In the second half of the play I read Princess Katherine. I really enjoyed reading her scene with Alice when she is attempting to learn English, and I think this shows how she is willing to sacrifice herself to save her country. This is also evident in the very last scene in which she questions whether she could ever love France’s enemy, but goes along with it regardless. Overall, I think my characters developed well. Henry is always going to be complex, with his motivations questionable – is he being fair and just, or ruthless? Katherine was a more simple character to understand, a pawn used in France’s favour.


Esmeralda: The character of Pistol evolves from a brute and dishonest soldier to a more disciplined and loyal member of the English army. Initially introduced as part of a rowdy group of soldiers, Pistol’s journey includes moments of confrontation with authority which prompt him to reassess his behaviour and evolve to respect military protocol. Through Pistol’s development, Shakespeare explores the theme of personal growth within the context of war, which is one that is given a lot of importance in the narrative of the play, and one which deeply enriches the characters within the play with the complexities of human nature amidst the chaos of battle.


Thies: I found it quite but viewing the play through the perspective of Exeter. He wants to protect his country and the king, of which he sees intimately tied to god. His uncritical belief in the goodness of his actions becomes easy to sympathise with, I think if I was a viewer I would identify him as a chauvinist. But in acknowledgment of his aristocratic position, I value the passion and loyalty that Shakespeare brings to his role as Duke of Exeter. Exeter is a character who pertains to his loyalty for the king through the entire play, often referencing blood, family, power and gods to create a semantic field of national pride, however as the play progresses he offers a monologue to glorify the duke of york and duke of suffolks’ death. The kiss between the cousins is described by Exeter as ‘A testament of noble-ending love.’ The tie between themes of chivalry, family and national security all link together in this scene. I don’t believe Exeter waivers in his views through the play, but he becomes more impassioned in his vocal support. 


Has the play impacted your understanding of history?


Georgia: During this production I have learnt quite a lot about Henry V’s character, the general relations between France and England, and a closer look into the power dynamics between Princess Katherine and the King. I was not aware of the significant language barrier between the two, and how this would have affected their power dynamics. The ending has a rather sinister feel as if Katherine has been forced into this relationship. Learning facts about the political climate of the time was also interesting, such as Salic law which excludes persons descended solely from a woman from claiming the throne.


Esmeralda: For me, the play, by exploring the historical context of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, sparked my curiosity and therefore inspired me to seek out additional sources of information to deepen my, until now, very simplistic and narrow understanding  of Europe’s Hundred Year’s War.


Thies: Henry V has immersed me in a historic discourse of language which I previously knew little about, the Norman conquest of 1066 had altered the status of Anglo-Saxon English and had elevated French to an official language. However, Shakespeare identifies the diversity of language spoken in the British territory, providing opposition to ideas about a unified country, and subversively displays the strength in diversity over a nationalistic outlook that seeks domination of foreign areas.


How does Henry V compare to other Shakespeare’s plays you’ve experienced?


Georgia: Henry V is very different to other Shakespeare plays I have studied, such as The Tempest and Macbeth. Both of these plays have an interesting universal quality to them, with The Tempest being read through many different lenses such as post colonial or a feminist point of view. This is quite difficult to do with Henry V however, as it is deeply rooted in facts and history therefore difficult to project your own spin or opinion onto it. This can be a positive and a negative, as it panders towards fanatics interested in the British monarchy and French English relations, but it may not interest broader audiences. 


Esmeralda: The play is mainly focused on War, and although several of Shakespeare’s plays do delve a lot into that genre, I feel that there is a slight difference when it comes to the factors that are motivating the desire for conflict. While in some of Shakespeare’s other plays, where the reasons for war may be driven by personal ambition or political intrigue, the conflict in “Henry V” is framed as a just and noble cause – the defence of England’s honour. Additionally, unlike most of his most popular plays, or at least the ones that have made a bigger mark on our current mainstream culture, Henry V is based on historical events and figures, rather than being products of his imagination and creativity. Henry V, draws the audience into the plot, rather than with fictional creation, with a historical baseline. Knowing that the events depicted in the play actually occurred adds a layer of authenticity that is not present in many of his plays, but still makes audiences feel a deep investment in the character’s fates and a general engagement with the themes of the play.


Thies: I find Henry V strikingly different to some of Shakespeare’s more mainstream domestic plays such as Romeo and Juliet which has a more timeless and universal quality in both plot and characterisation, young lovers on opposing political divides can be found through the whole world across different time periods and the short lived explosion of affection resonates with many audience member’s adolescent experience. On the other hand, Henry V’s particularity is its strength to engaged and enthusiastic audience members, but its historical specificity may be lost on a broader audience. This being said, I find it to be a wonderful illustration of the implications of language, power and cultural hegemony (when one culture dominates another for political gain).


Final Thoughts


“Henry V” offers audiences a unique opportunity to humanise historical figures and delve into the complexities of the late mediaeval period. The play invites audiences to empathise with the personal struggles and motivations of historical figures, challenging simplistic interpretations of history ​​and therefore considering alternative perspectives and encouraging a deeper engagement with history and its complexities. By studying this play in parts, we have found that while initially a disorienting experience, it eventually provides a different way of accessing a text, which places us in a position adjacent to Shakespearean actors through history.