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The conversation between Ely and Canterbury in Act I, scene i introduces the behind-the-scenes political intrigue that underlies the whole play and refers back to important events that have taken place before the play begins. Shakespeare’s audiences would have been familiar with these historical events; in Shakespeare’s time, as in Henry V’s time (about 200 years earlier), the church was an extremely powerful and wealthy institution, second only to the monarchy in riches and influence. (In the play, however, the church in question is the Catholic Church, not the Church of England.) The church received much of its money from wealthy landowners who donated money just before they died, in the hopes that the church would pray for them and keep their souls from going to hell. Unfortunately, many leaders of the church were corrupt and worldly and spent church money on luxuries for themselves. Canterbury and Ely’s greed and corruption in attempting to prevent passage of the bill—to avoid forfeiting lots of money by giving some money directly to the king—would have been obvious and familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. Modern audiences may recognize the clergymen’s tactics as an early example of a special interest group lobbying the government.
In the two Henry IV plays, the prequels to Henry V, Henry V appears as a wayward prince. The issue of his wayward youth and his reformation, introduced here by the clergymen, gets significant mention throughout Henry V. In fact, Henry’s newly forged moral character, along with his suitability for the role of king, is perhaps the play’s major focus. If Henry appears to be a drunken scoundrel in the Henry IV plays, he has now matured into an ideal English ruler who, good or bad, is a compelling figure. Unlike some of Shakespeare’s other history plays, which focus on groups of historical figures, Henry V is very much a play about a single man.
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