Drama vs. History in Shakespeare's Henry V
It is not necessary to have authored seven historical dramas, as Shakespeare had when he set to work on Henry V, to conclude that history is frequently not very dramatic. Chronicles of the past have the subjectivity and subtly of national anthems - they are about appropriating the truth, not approaching it. Noble causes and giant killing abound in these documents, often at the cost of fact and explanation. All this adds up to an account of the past in which the winners reign victorious before the battle even begins, while the losers' natural iniquity contributes as much to their defeat as enemy swords and soldiers. Readers in the present may wonder that their ancestors ever felt twinges of suspense as the events wore on, for according to historians, the outcome of these clashes was, as King Henry would say, "as gross/ As black on white" (2.2.104). It is as predictable, the Elizabethans might have said, as a bad play.
And yet there was suspense and anxiety in days gone by, as surely as political maneuvering in the present sows seeds of unrest. Shakespeare realized this and came to a startling conclusion - there is a gap between the events of the past and historical narrative. The proclivities of the historian become the very shape of history, cramming the past with mighty deeds and epic heroes. But this shape is warped, fashioned, as it is, in the likeness of famous men and dubious motives. Historians see the past as a straight and singular line; Shakespeare knew its course could neither have been quite so direct nor quite so simple. Henry V is his attempt to reinsert the complexities of the past into the straightforward narrative of history, to dramatize, so to speak, the historical drama. The Bard does this not because he thinks he will succeed but because he knows he will fail, for the sensibilities of history cannot accommodate those of drama (and visa-versa). Henry V demonstrates that, according to Shakespeare's understanding of history, "historical drama" is an oxymoron.
If the aim of Henry V is to fall ostensibly short of two targets (history and drama), the presence of the Chorus goes a long way towards achieving this end. He book-ends the whole play and each of the acts, nominally to apologize for the inadequacies of staging history and to remind the audience to use its imagination to provide what the acting company cannot. "But pardon, gentles all," the chorus entreats in the epilogue, "The flat unraised spirits that hath dared / On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth/ So great an object" (1.0.8-11). If the audience had not considered the motley pairing of the "unworthy scaffold" of the theatre and the "great object" of history before this apology, they are certainly attentive to it now. The Chorus's apologies only diminish the illusion of reality that spectators usually manage without instruction.