Study Guide | Theater

Henry V

Introduction
What makes someone an inspirational leader? 

The topic of leadership is one that consumes a great deal of attention. In books and TED talks, corporate boardrooms, locker rooms, and classrooms, the topic of leadership is the subject of endless debate. Can we boil down the qualities that make someone a great leader into a simple list? If so, can we then teach these qualities and characteristics to anyone? Does everyone have the capacity to become a great leader? The very fact that there is such an incredibly large volume of text and discussion on the subject is a pretty clear indication that “leadership” is not something that you can simply bottle and distribute to everyone. Yet in searching through these explorations of the nature of leadership, one quality reappears time and time again. Most people who have taken up this topic seem to agree that to be a great leader, one does not have to be the smartest, the strongest, the fastest, or the bravest. In fact, leadership may have nothing at all to do with the skills that a person possesses. Instead, a great leader may be defined as someone who makes the people around him or her perform to the best of their abilities, and inspires them to stretch themselves to move beyond what they thought themselves capable of.

Almost exactly six centuries ago, the armies of England were engaged in a campaign to conquer their long-time enemy, France. The attempted conquest was led (and we’ll use the word “led” literally; unlike today, those were the days where a king would ride at the head of his army into battle) by a young and untested king named Henry V. The English had achieved several important early victories in this campaign, but now winter was coming in and the army was besieged by sickness and hunger. The French chose this moment to attack in the hopes of ending the English threat once and for all. On the morning of Friday, October 25, 1415, the French, outnumbering the English by more than five to one, swooped down a hill towards the English encampment, in a field within sight of the ancient castle of Agincourt. What unfolded over the next several hours is still considered among the greatest upsets in military history as the English won the battle and achieved their conquest of France. Historians are quick to point out that there were several practical reasons why the English won. Their army featured the use of a relatively new and powerful weapon, the longbow; also, the heavy rain of the day caused havoc for the French, and it is said that a large number of the French casualties that day drowned in the mud under the weight of their armor. But most writers of the time, including William Shakespeare, give nearly all the credit to the leadership skills of the young king. Henry brings out the best in each of his men through his inspiring speeches, his genuine emotional connection with both his noble officers and his common soldiers, the example of his own brave deeds on the battlefield, and his humble modesty in an impossible triumph.

In another play, Shakespeare famously wrote, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” And at the end of Henry V, Shakespeare asserts that “Fortune made his sword.” Shakespeare does not analyze what made Henry V one of England’s greatest rulers; the source and nature of his leadership is left to the audience to dissect. As a storyteller and not a historian, he presents us with Henry’s evolution from a young man disrespected both by foreign leaders and his own subjects into a legend. Henry V is probably not listed among all those Amazon books on leadership, but very rarely has any work for the stage presented the inspirational power of a great leader as Shakespeare does here.

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