Unlike the previous installments in the “Henry” tetralogy, where the king named in the title turns out not to be the key figure of the drama, Henry V is truly Henry V’s play. He appears frequently in every act, and we see him in a wide variety of contexts that showcase different aspects of his personality. He is a gifted political strategist, a cunning negotiator, a tough but fair judge, a rousing orator, a fearless soldier, an open-minded leader, a charming trickster, a faithful Christian, and, beneath it all, a vulnerable man. This multifaceted portrait of an ideal king marks the high point and resolution for the Henry plays as a whole. The previous three plays have depicted an increasingly debased and demoralized kingdom torn asunder by civil war and poor leadership. By contrast, Henry V centers a king with the charisma to unite the realm and the resolve to wage a successful foreign war against all the odds.

The ground for the action of Henry V was first set in Henry IV, Part 2, when the dying King Henry IV advised his son to quash England’s civil war by redirecting the violence out and away from the kingdom. Responding to his father’s advice, the newly crowned King Henry V set his sights on a war in France. This explains why the current play opens with Henry consulting with the Bishops of Canterbury and Ely on the legal details of his claim to the throne of France, which he intends to capture. Henry’s claim stems from his great-great-grandfather, Edward II, who married the daughter of the French King Philip IV. It is through this woman, known as Isabella of France, that Henry asserts his claims—a tricky matter considering that the French monarchy doesn’t allow inheritance through women. Nonetheless, after evaluating the legal technicalities, Henry remains certain of the righteousness of his claim.

Considering that Henry has already decided to pursue the French throne before the play begins, Henry V doesn’t have a clear inciting incident. That said, the mocking gift of tennis balls Henry receives from the Dauphin of France evidently serves this purpose. Not only does the Dauphin’s mockery enflame Henry’s sense of righteousness, but it also intensifies his desire to prove himself as a king—particularly in the face of such clear disbelief in his leadership capacity. Thus, Henry pursues his invasion of France not out of a pure lust for power and land, but out of a desire to test his mettle and become the king he has long envisioned for himself.

The rising action of the drama plays out primarily in acts 2 and 3, as both the English and the French prepare for war and engage in an initial skirmish in the coastal French town of Harfleur. The scenes in these acts introduce the audience to a wide range of characters. On the English side, we encounter nobles and commoners who have been recruited for the war effort. We also meet a cast of military commanders who represent all the major parts of the greater regions of Britain: Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. Despite ongoing tensions on the home front, these characters gladly unite under the English banner. Shakespeare also introduces the audience to numerous French characters. Whereas the English cast comes from all walks of life, the French depicted on stage all come from the nobility.

As the scenes alternate between the English and French camps, Shakespeare carefully shapes the audience’s perceptions of each group. The scenes among the French depict a group of lords and dukes who have every confidence in their ability to defeat the untested Henry. Unconcerned by the coming battle, they play silly games and engage in gentle mockery. By contrast, the scenes among the English typically have a heroic gravitas that shows the deep importance of this war effort. What’s at stake for the English isn’t just land and power; it’s about the more intangible rewards of unity, honor, and glory. As the rising action continues to build and we learn that the English are vastly outnumbered by the French, a certain dramatic irony begins to creep in. Audiences in Shakespeare’s day would already have known the outcome of this famous battle. As such, the effect of alternating between the French and English scenes is to emphasize the French overconfidence and thus set the English up as valorous underdogs. Their eventual victory, though miraculous, nonetheless comes to seem inevitable.

The audience therefore anticipates the events of the climax in act 4, where, against the odds, the English defeat the French at the Battle of Agincourt. Although Henry has already shown his many gifts as a leader, he proves himself most definitively in act 4. Indeed, it is throughout this act that we see him struggle most fully with his responsibility as king. He’s vulnerable and prayerful when alone, tolerant when faced with opposing views from his own soldiers, powerfully charismatic when rousing his army to battle, and ruthless when key moments in the conflict demand it.

After Henry has led his army to its miraculous victory, the falling action depicts the final political negotiations that officially secure him as the heir to the French throne. Instead of taking the throne for himself, Henry allows the current French king, Charles VI, to retain his title. Meanwhile, Henry negotiates a marriage with Charles’s daughter, Catherine, yoking the two kingdoms together and—hopefully—ensuring a secure future for both.

In the play’s epilogue, however, the Chorus reminds the audience that the unity so heroically won by Henry wouldn’t last. He would go on to die young, leaving both kingdoms to his too-young son with his too many advisors. In other words, after a short spell of impeccable leadership, England would once again fall into misrule and succumb to another reign of disunity. With this downer ending, Shakespeare powerfully reminds us that no acts of heroism, honor, and accomplishment can ensure lasting stability. The machinations of history are ultimately too complex and troubled for that.