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Study Guide | Theater

The Famous Victories of Henry V


Why are we so obsessed with origin stories?

If you look back at some of the most successful movies of the past decade, you will find endless examples of origin stories. Tony Stark becomes Iron Man. Bruce Wayne becomes the Dark Knight. James Howlett and his friends become Wolverine and the X-Men. On television, shows like Daredevil and Gotham revolve around the same ideas. Origin stories may not always involve superheroes in costumes, but their hold on us is just as strong. How does a scrawny girl from the middle of nowhere in District 12 become Katniss Everdeen? How does a boy living a wretched life under his aunt and uncle’s staircase become Harry Potter?

This phenomenon is certainly not restricted to fiction. Our bestseller lists are filled with examples of biographies and other works of non-fiction that describe in great detail how our heroes throughout history became the important figures we know. We learn, for example, how Lincoln, the man generally acknowledged as our greatest president, was born dirt poor in a log cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky. Even on Broadway, the most remarkable musical of this young century tells an origin story—one in which a poor orphan immigrant, armed only with his wits and confidence in his vision, becomes one of our greatest founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton.

As the writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell points out in his classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces (a huge influence on Star Wars creator George Lucas), hero stories are almost universally beloved because they touch something in all of us. They teach us that no matter where we come from, all of us have the capacity to transform into something greater than ourselves—a hero who brings hope, salvation and victory to themselves and their people.

What you will see in The Famous Victories of Henry V is exactly this kind of hero origin story. Six centuries ago, a young prince sat on the throne of England, a nation torn apart by civil conflict. This prince had led a rather wild and reckless life in his youth, and there was great fear both at home and abroad that the new king’s reign would be a disaster. But as heroes will do, the young king, Henry V, rose to the occasion and shook off his former wildness. Though he ruled for only fifteen years, he became one of the most successful and beloved rulers in England’s long history.

Like Star Wars, The Matrix, Iron Man, and the Dark Knight films, The Famous Victories of Henry V is structured as a trilogy. There are two major differences, though; one is that in this work, the action of the dramatic trilogy has been combined into a single short, action-packed play. The other is that the author of this trilogy is perhaps the English language’s greatest writer: William Shakespeare.

“BAM Education study guides are supported by the Frederick Loewe Foundation.”