‘Suppose you see’: The Chorus in Henry V and The Mirror for Magistrates

  • Brian Vickers


Henry V, long celebrated — and then reviled — as an exercise in patriotism and jingoism, continues to stimulate critics1 into finding modes of appreciation that will do justice to this complex, hybrid play, with its strikingly original fusion of victory and defeat, heroism and cowardice, celebration and satire, romantic wooing and sexually transmitted diseases, prelates and princes, conscientious soldiers and camp-followers, scavengers and thieves. One particularly original feature of Henry V is its use of a Chorus who enters into a direct relationship with the audience, not just as Prologue but offering sustained commentary on the play in the course of its unfolding. Recent critical responses to the Chorus may be divided into those who take literally his apologies for the inadequacies of theatrical representation, giving rise to speculations about Shakespeare’s loss of faith in the theatre, or unease with this particular play;2 and, on the other side, those who see the apologies as not meant literally, but as alluding to a different literary genre (such as epic,3 or historiography),4 or as having been written for a specific occasion (such as performance before the court in a small theatre for a revival in 1605).5 Other critics point to the several inconsistencies between the Chorus’s announcement of what is to follow and the events themselves, drawing largely negative conclusions.6 I acknowledge these inconsistencies, and take note of the argument that the absence of the choric speeches from the Quarto and their presence in the Folio text may point to their having been composed later. However, we lack any evidence for the circumstances surrounding later composition, and ungroundable speculation seems pointless.


Rhetorical Device Direct Address Prose Passage Imaginative Power Henry Versus 
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  1. 3.
    The most useful statement of this critical approach is by Edward I. Berry, ‘“True Things and Mock’ries”: Epic and History in Henry V’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 78 (1979): 1–16Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    See e.g. Eamon Grennean, ‘“This Story Shall the Good Man Teach His Son”: Henry V and the Art of History’,. Papers on Language and Literature 15 (1979): 370–82Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    The most interesting of these ‘occasional’ readings (setting aside various vacuous suggestions that Shakespeare must have acted the Chorus) is by G.P. Jones, ‘Henry V: The Chorus and the Audience’, Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978): 93–104Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    On the discrepancies between the Chorus’s account and the events that follow see, for example, Anthony S. Brennan, ‘That Within Which Passes Show: The Function of the Chorus in Henry V, Philological Quarterly 58 (1979): 40–52Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    See e.g. G. Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. III: Earlier English History Plays (London and New York, 1960), pp. 15Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brian Vickers

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