By Brianna Foth
During my freshman year of college, I took an introductory Shakespeare class. The five plays we read throughout the semester had no shortage of likable characters, yet, I found myself endeared to one character over all the others: Henry V, otherwise known across Shakespeare’s Henriad as simply “Hal” or “Harry.” The son of King Henry IV, young Prince Hal initially quarrels with his father over the prince’s poor choice of childhood companions and his generally uncouth behavior, but after his father’s death, Hal rebuffs his former friends and goes on to become a thoughtful and effective ruler, during whose reign England successfully takes control of a large portion of France. Equal parts politically savvy, rhetorically skilled, and judgmentally fair, Henry V is often regarded by Shakespeare scholars as embodying Shakespeare’s vision of the ideal English king.
I’m not sure what exactly it was that drew me, then a 19-year-old Shakespeare newbie, to this character so often emphasized by Shakespeare professors for his unlikely transformation from a wayward prince to a respected king. Perhaps I was charmed by the rebellious persona he assumed in his early years, getting into trouble in England’s taverns. Hal was the Shakespearean equivalent of the infamous “bad boy” to be found in any modern romance novel. Or perhaps I was fascinated by the underlying dynamic between a rebellious son and a disappointed father, relatable to any person in their 20s weighing their newly-found independence against their parents’ expectations for the first time. Either way, as an emerging Shakespeare fan, I soon added Henry to my repertoire of favorite characters, knowing that eventually, I would want to see where this personal and political coming-of-age story would end up.
It would take a few years for me to get around to reading the rest of the Henriad, but when I did, I was surprised to find myself drawn to a new aspect of Henry’s character: his wooing of and marriage to Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France. Even more surprising was the fact that I soon learned that others were, too — in fact, it seemed that generations of writers and artists alike had worked to reimagine what Henry’s love life may have been like, from retelling the story of his marriage to Catherine, to inventing former lovers, and even to exploring his wife’s secret remarriage to the Welsh courtier Owen Tudor after his death. What was it that drew so many to reimagine the love life of a character already compelling for his story of personal and political transformation, and how exactly had they envisioned it?
One of the most memorable sequences in Henry V is Act V Scene II, in which a victorious King Henry, having prevailed in the infamous Battle of Agincourt, arranges a meeting between the French and the English to negotiate a peace treaty. However, Henry quickly delegates the negotiation business to his advisors, instead devoting himself to wooing the Princess Catherine, the French king’s youngest daughter. But Catherine is not easily swayed, and indeed, it takes many lines of effusive compliments and gentle persuasion for her to reconsider her doubts, musing aloud (in her thick French accent): “Is it possible dat I sould love de enemy of / France?” (ll. 176-177).
Yet despite Catherine’s proclaimed skepticism in this moment, artistic depictions of Henry wooing Catherine often illustrate the French princess being deeply moved by his words, peering longingly into her suitor’s eyes — as in German artist Friedrich Pecht’s illustration of the scene — or gazing thoughtfully at his outstretched hand — as in British painter William Frederick Yeames’s depiction. And in English playwright Aaron Hill’s 1723 play King Henry the Fifth, or, The conquest of France by the English: a tragedy, a loose rewriting of Shakespeare’s version, Catherine instead falls in love with a disguised Henry long before his negotiations with the French, leading her to be overjoyed when he eventually reveals himself to be the man she is designated to marry.
Though differing only slightly from the version of the story told in Shakespeare’s play, these alternative depictions transform a scene originally showing off Henry’s persuasive skill into a story about mutual attraction and emotional intimacy. In this version of the story, Henry’s marriage to Catherine is not just a strategic political move to unite the kingdoms of England and France, but about his and Catherine’s genuine love for one another, adding a new layer of emotional depth to a character originally known primarily for his political prowess.
Not all depictions of Henry’s love life, however, have been quite so idyllic. In fact, within the same Aaron Hill play, there is also a subplot centered around Harriet, a new character created by Hill, who was once seduced by Henry, but has since been abandoned by him and become bitter. Goaded by her uncle, Scroop, into taking revenge on her former lover by joining in on Scroop’s plot to murder him, Harriet disguises herself and follows Henry to his campaign in France, where her bitterness over her rejection morphs into full-blown contempt for Henry: “...my soul, / Full charged with hate, and pride, breaks out in passion, / Bold, as my wrongs, and dreadful, as my purpose” (Act 1).
Similarly, in William Kenrick’s 1760 play Falstaff's Wedding: A Comedy, Eleanor Poins, a new character created by Kenrick, is also an abandoned former lover of Henry’s. Less bitter than Harriet, but still feeling that she has been wronged, Eleanor bemoans what Henry has done to her, offering a view of the king as a heartbreaker: “Thou art employed, I see, to try my heart / .... / Ah, how unkind! So kind while yet a prince! / If thus a golden crown can steel his heart, / O may I never behold him while a king!” (Act 3, Scene 2).
These depictions of Henry, while focusing less directly on his relationship with Catherine, still bestow emotional depth to his character, and also add a new layer of meaning to Hal’s transformation from youth to king. In these visions, Henry transforms not just from an irresponsible prince to an astute ruler, but also from a thoughtless heartbreaker to a devoted husband: making the English king exceptional not only for his immense rise to power but also for his impressive emotional growth.
Like the real King Henry V, the basis for Shakespeare’s character, Henry dies soon after his marriage with Catherine, leaving their young son to assume the throne. Despite the tragic ending to their relationship, there has been continued interest in the way his wife, Catherine, moves on from his death and goes on to secretly remarry the Welsh courtier Owen Tudor.
In Queen Catharine; or, The Ruines of Love, a 1698 play written by English novelist and playwright Mary Pix which centers around Henry’s widow and her new husband, Catherine at one point finds herself discussing her former spouse with her new husband, Tudor, and implies that Henry had known of their mutual attraction to one another: “Henry the first and noblest / Candidate for fame, once was yours and mine, / My lover, and your royal friend, / … / Henry knew the holy fire, that warm'd your breast, / Yet so well he knew both you and me, / That he never frown'd on either…”
Though still speaking fondly of Henry, this portrayal of Henry and Catherine’s marriage downplays any real romantic love they may have had for one another. Yet, it nevertheless demonstrates Henry’s understanding of and respect for the idea of true love, which may or may not fit into the boundaries of marriage. The novel also demonstrates a genuine respect for his wife on Henry’s part, demonstrative of a level of emotional intimacy that, even if not love, still would suggest significant emotional intelligence on the part of the king.
Together, these depictions, while varied, add significant emotional depth to a character who was already compelling for his impressive and relatable story of transformation from youth to man. The centuries-long fascination with the love life of a European monarch speaks to an appeal beyond just an admiration for Henry’s exterior political accomplishments, but a genuine investment in the interior life of the king.
Across these varying interpretations, Henry becomes more than just an exceptional historical figure, but a real thinking, feeling person with a rich interior life that perhaps mirrors aspects of the reader’s own. I originally became fascinated with Henry through the connection I felt to his struggles in navigating the transition from youth to adult, but through discovering these reimaginings of the character, I found myself even more drawn to the potential to imagine the extent to which a person can mature emotionally on the way to achieving a fulfilling, adult relationship.
Perhaps the emphasis on Henry’s reaching an understanding of true love simply satisfies us with the happy ending we all hope to receive at the end of our stories. Or perhaps it reflects our own changing understanding of the role of marriage and of the purpose of relationships, from purely strategic partnerships to manifestations of emotional connection and mutual respect. Either way, I wouldn’t be surprised if I discovered that the Henriad had been adapted into a cheesy coming-of-age novel about a young man growing up and falling in love. Perhaps I’d even write it myself.
This essay is part of the Shakespeare, Sort Of series, a project exploring archival research and Shakespearean adaptations. Find every SSO essay here.
”How Catherine Of Valois & Henry V’s Real Relationship Compares To The King” | Elena Nicolaou, Refinery29, 2019.
”The Love Affair That Never Was” | Anne O’Brien, Anne O’Brien, 2013.
“The Royal Bride Who Changed England Forever” | Lydia Starbuck, Royal Central, 2020.