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"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers"
on 15 October 2014
After the rebellions (or are they?) of his youth, Prince Hal is now king though the shadow of usurpation still overlies his throne. In a quest to divert internal rebellion, Henry leads the English to France and the victory of Agincourt thus legitimising his rule through both military victory and the 'arm' of god - but does the play ultimately assert the orthodoxy of Tudor propaganda or critique it?
Like the other single Oxford play-texts in this series, the play is prefaced by a long and detailed introduction which explores sources, performance history and receptions. Written by Gary Taylor, one of the leading editors of Shakespeare, it's quite light on critical controversies, particularly the ways in which this might be read as either promoting, contesting or surpassing Tudor 'history'. The on-page glosses are useful and fairly comprehensive, and the text is cleanly laid out.
Regardless, though, of whether we read this as a rousing paean of national identity at a point at which Britain was being constructed (as opposed to England), a war epic, or a more sceptical response to military glory, this remains a more complicated play than is often the case in performance. With the question of who Henry is beneath the royal trappings, and the disconcerting epilogue which speaks forward to the troubled rule of Henry VI, this may be a play which poses more questions than it answers.