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Resources for Shakespeare’s Henry V

Last term we spent some time with Henry V, Ambleside Online’s Shakespeare selection.   It’s the action packed story of how, as a young king, Henry fought for the French throne and then won the French princess Katharine.  It’s about Christian kingship, leadership, responsibility, and war or, in modern terms, about national pride, Christian politics, and integrity. In fact, the play suggests that Henry V is meant to be the ideal prince, although it contains hints that suggest he is actually the opposite, the mirror image.  

We studied it for the entire fall term, using the following resources: 

  • The written play itself.

However, that is not where we start when we study a Shakespeare play. We first read a synopsis, and then we watch it. I think this is the key to our family’s enjoyment of Shakespeare.  We had no access to live performances of Henry V, so we tried three different DVD’s.

  • Commissioned by the British government to improve morale during World War 2, the movie by Lawrence Olivier  was a breakthrough in filming Shakespeare.  This movie was very difficult to locate, and we could only find the first half.  Still, it is fascinating, beginning at Shakespeare’s own Globe Theatre, and moving beyond it.  It is realistic and well done but, of course, those used to modern film will find the picture quality somewhat disappointing.  Someday we hope to find the second half.  We discussed how it could have been used to improve morale during the war.
  • The BBC TV version of 1979, directed by David Giles was dramatic and well-done.  Occasionally the voices were so soft that I could not follow the words.  Of course, being a war play, it had some violent and gruesome scenes, but should be suitable for teens.  It is less violent than Branagh’s movie, discussed below.
  • Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film, rated PG in Canada, is so realistically violent that Mr. 16 occasionally blocked the screen for Miss 14 and me.  It is an excellent and memorable film, worth watching if you avoid looking during the battle scenes and don’t watch the hanging.  Absolutely not suitable for children, despite the rating.  Occasionally the actors voices were too soft, but during his speeches, Henry V was very, very loud, riding his rearing horse in front of a burning city.  Having little ones within earshot is not a good idea.

This year the BBC is producing a new version.  

  • The other resource that added immeasurably to our understanding of the play was Brightest Heaven of Invention:  A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays by Peter J. Leithart.  Leithart, now literature prof at New St. Andrews College, based this book on the Shakespeare course he taught to homeschooled teens  years ago.  Without his guidance, the plays are fascinating stories; with his guidance, they become deep commentaries on many aspects of life and, in this case, history.  This book is highly recommended for all homeschooled teens, although it does deal with some of the mature themes Shakespeare presents.

As an aside, here’s a general list of Shakespeare movies and resources for families, recommended by Ambleside Online.  

For more information about classical homeschooling, please visit Trivium Tuesday.


  1. Thanks for your comment. I was thinking of doing Henry V, but I think it may be too violent and too intense for my 12 yr. old daughter who has only been through one play so far. I’m in the process of trying to pick another.

    We recently finished Much Ado About Nothing and really enjoyed it–film (though I had to block the screen in a few parts) and the play. Enjoy!

    1. Annie Kate says:

      Yes, it’s very violent and intense.

      My younger children start with the comedies, played by a wonderful group of actors in parks around here. That’s always the most fun.

  2. Lisa says:

    great resources, I think I will tuck them away for a later use when we hit it in High School! Thanks 😀

    visiting from Trivium Tuesday

    1. Annie Kate says:

      You’re welcome!

  3. Amy says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone watching the movie BEFORE reading a book for school =) I can see where that might be helpful for Shakespeare though! That Christian Guide looks really interesting. Thanks so much for sharing this at Trivium Tuesdays! I hope you are able to link up with us again next week =)

    1. Annie Kate says:

      Yes, the Leithart book is great.

      I suppose you wouldn’t watch the movie of a novel first, but Shakespeare wrote PLAYS. They were meant to be watched, not read.

      That’s one thing the schools tend to get wrong; first they read a play, bit by bit, so that the students don’t even get the story line and are focusing on meanings of words. Then, when everyone is thoroughly sick of it, they watch the play.

      By watching it first, as Shakespeare intended, students really learn to enjoy the story and then have a context for the themes, words etc.

      1. Amy says:

        Wow! Great point! I definitely wasn’t thinking of that. I’m going to remember that for when we get to plays (in years). I’m really glad you responded, because that is good info!

        1. Annie Kate says:

          You’re welcome.

  4. […] As discussed in the comments on my blog earlier, we recommend reading a short plot outline before watching the play, but we do not insist on reading the actual play before watching the movie…because plays are meant to be watched, not read.    […]

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