Henry V, War Criminal?

bh-cover-henry-v-war-criminal ‘… like Olivier, Branagh ducked what is the most contentious element in the play for British audiences, namely Henry’s apparently criminal massacre of his helpless French prisoners …’

John Sutherland



I bought this book, which arrived today, on the strength of the fun I had with another of John Sutherland’s: ‘Is Heathcliffe a Murderer?  Puzzles in 19th-Century Fiction.’

One of the interesting theories put forward is that the prisoners were not, in fact, killed at all – and this chimes with my ideas.  Aside from the diversion of military resources to do this at a critical point in the battle, I can’t see Pistol cutting Le Fer’s throat, at a cost to himself of the agreed ransom of 200 crowns – even on Henry’s orders.

The order itself does seem to match an unattractive and ruthless streak that Henry frequently displays.  This is, after all, the Henry who tells Falstaff:  ‘I do.  I will.’ two plays before Hal’s irrepresible second father dies, seemingly of a broken heart.  Perhaps it’s my affection for Falstaff, but I can never quite take to Henry, certainly not to the extent that Branagh and Olivier would have.  His ‘wooing’ of Katherine at the end of Henry V is clumsy and tiresome, like that boring person you meet at a party who mistakenly thinks you are fascinated by them and simply WILL NOT GO AWAY.  Get the hint, Henry!  Let’s face it, it’s not like Katherine really has any choice in the matter.

Don’t even get me started on the laughable promise to ennoble every one who fights with him on St Crispin’s Day …

I’ll be dipping in and out of this book, rather than reading from cover to cover, so expect further posts about the dilemmas dealt with.

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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