Warning: This post contains spoilers for The King.
Shakespeare’s plays have been a source of entertainment for centuries on the page, the stage and the screen. Director David Michôd’s The King, which reimagines Shakespeare’s Henriad plays, is the latest entry in the vast body of adaptations of the Bard’s works. The King follows the life of a young Prince Hal, from his days of drinking and gambling to his eventual rise to the throne of the King of England, from which he must navigate politics, betrayal, war and the chaos his father left in his wake.
The King, which stars Timothée Chalamet, Lily Rose Depp, Robert Pattinson and Joel Edgerton (who co-wrote the screenplay with Michôd), premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August before a limited theatrical release in October. It becomes available to stream on Netflix on Nov. 1.
Here is everything you need to know about the true story behind The King — and Shakespeare’s telling of that history.
What are Shakespeare’s Henriad plays about?
William Shakespeare’s famed Henriad plays, loosely based on events that took place during the 15th century, span from Richard II to Henry IV, Parts 1 and II, and Henry V. The plays chronicle the rise of the Lancaster branch of England’s House of Plantagenet in the 15th century, with a focus on politics and diplomacy, war and betrayal.
In the first play, the Lancasters ascend to the throne of England, as Henry Bolingbroke — later King Henry IV — deposes his cousin King Richard II. Prince Hal, played by Chalamet in The King, is the central figure of the later plays — which cover his young life of debauchery and camaraderie with his friend Sir John Falstaff (Edgerton) to his eventual rise as King of England and subsequent disregard for his old friends.
The King features aspects of the latter two plays, but with some key differences.
What was King Henry V’s relationship with his father like?
In both Shakespeare’s Henriad plays and The King, Prince Hal’s relationship with his father is tense. Hal’s father, King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), envies Lord Northumberland for having an honorable son (Percy), compared to the “riot and dishonor” of Prince Hal. But there is a significant difference in the way in which The King leaves their relationship before the king dies.
In Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, the king feels betrayed when Prince Hal, thinking that his father is dead when in fact he is asleep, takes his father’s crown and leaves the room. But the pair settle their differences after Hal reveals his love for his father in a poetic scene, which ends with the king giving his crown to Prince Hal before he dies.
The King takes some liberties with this moment. After Hal’s father strips him of the crown and instead gives it to his younger brother, Hal doesn’t answer calls to visit his father’s deathbed. But, angry after his brother’s untimely death in battle, Prince Hal storms into his father’s bedroom and strips away the bed sheets of the dying monarch, leaving him shivering at his final hour. While the King tells Hal that he must be king and appears to regrets his actions, Prince Hal doesn’t speak of love for his father; instead he remains silent as his father dies before him.
How does King Henry V’s relationship with Sir John Falstaff differ between the Henriad plays and The King?
In the Henriad plays, Falstaff and Hal have a close friendship until Prince Hal famously rejects Falstaff during his coronation and, in Henry IV Part II, bans him, on pain of death, from seeing him. Audiences of Shakespeare’s plays have been left baffled by this move — the Prince seemingly forgets his old friend once he becomes King, dismissing him as “a fool and jester”. Falstaff doesn’t feature in the final Henriad play, and the audience is simply told that he dies, with no further explanation.
The relationship between the two characters is entirely different in The King. While Prince Hal does appear to forget about Falstaff as soon as he becomes king, he later returns to Falstaff, admits his neglect and asks him to join his ranks. Falstaff is a key character throughout the film, and regularly provides guidance to Hal, as both prince and king of England. Sir John Falstaff even comes up with the game plan for the Battle Agincourt and sacrifices himself in battle to help King Henry win. Instead of dying without explanation, as in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Falstaff dies with dignity and bravery in the Battle of Agincourt in The King. In an emotional scene, King Henry finds his friend’s body, laid among fallen soldiers in the mud, and cries over him.
Did the battle in France really happen?
The Battle of Agincourt in 1415 was immortalized by Shakespeare in Henry V, and features in The King, as well. More than 600 years ago, King Henry V led an army to victory on the field of Agincourt, near Azincourt in northern France, as part of the Hundred Years’ War.
As depicted in The King, the English army landed in France and launched a victorious attack on the port town of Harfleur, but the siege took its toll — many of the soldiers died of disease and many were left behind to defend the captured port. This left King Henry V’s army weakened and outnumbered by an estimated 30,000-strong French army. But, in a historic turn of events, the English army won the battle due to King Henry’s decisive leadership, compared to the muddled leadership of the French troops. The U.K.’s National Archives show that, as in The King, wet weather on the day before battle made the ground muddy, which led many French soldiers on foot, pressed forward by their comrades, to fall, making them vulnerable to the English attack.
Did King Henry V marry Catherine, the French Princess?
Both Shakespeare’s plays and The King introduce the audience to Princess Catherine de Valois, who married King Henry V. This was also the case in real life: the couple married on June 2, 1420, but not without some complications on the way to the altar. King Henry V refused to consider marriage with Princess Catherine after her father, the King of France, could not meet the young king’s demands of the return of Normandy and Aquitaine and two million crowns. Henry V later invaded France at the battle of Agincourt in 1415.
The King suggests that the marriage took place soon after the Battle of Agincourt once the French army was defeated — but in reality, the couple married five years later, after Henry called for another invasion of France. Eventually, the French king agreed to pass the throne to Henry V after a decline in his mental health and in 1420 signed the Treaty of Troyes, which arranged the union between Catherine and Henry V.
The couple’s marriage is far from the romantic depictions from both Shakespeare and The King (portrayed by real-life couple Timothee Chalamet and Lily Rose Depp). King Henry V left for France after five months of marriage — Princess Catherine only reunited with her husband one more time before his death in 1422.
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