Henry V is one of the most popular of the history plays of Shakespeare, rivaled only by Richard III, and of the two, it is almost certainly the greater. It is full of drama, of surprising revelations of character, and the action is interwoven with some very thoughtful discussion of all manner of things, including the nature of kingship (once again) and of personal identity.
It also explores the nature of statecraft, the morality of warfare, and the question of whether war can ever be conducted honorably, and opens the question of whether God takes side in human warfare. With all this, it also contains some of the grandest and most inspiring speeches in the whole of the Shakespeare corpus.
In short, it’s a play that is almost infinitely plastic: it can be played in a thousand ways that will make one character or another more prominent, though of course Henry himself is seldom out of view, and without a good actor carrying that role, the whole production is certain to collapse.
By good fortune, there are several excellent versions of the play that show, by their sheer variation, how many ways one play can be taken. The Laurence Olivier version, made in 1944, after the turn of the tide in World War II, is full of British triumphalism; Kenneth Branagh’s, produced shortly before the first Gulf War in 1989, shows the darker face of war and a more temperate view of the rest. Both are accompanied by spectacularly fine musical scores. In addition, there is one from the BBC Shakespeare sequence, one from the BBC series The Hollow Crown, and one from the Globe series; all these are somewhat more moderate, but each one is an excellent production, and each brings a different aspect of this amazingly protean play — as protean as Hal himself — into focus.