On the one hand Prince Hal, who became King Henry V, is undoubtedly England’s greatest king, so it’s perfectly reasonable that he’s the only person Shakespeare used as a protagonist in four plays. On the other hand, would anybody remember him today if Shakespeare hadn’t immortalised him? Hal’s empire lasted a mere four hundred years. Shakespeare’s work is going with us to the stars.
It wasn’t the greatness that drew Shakespeare to Hal. If it had been, he wouldn’t have written two plays set before Hal even achieved the throne. It was his complexity, the combination of his greatness and his tricks—he’s drawn to Falstaff and his foolery, and when he becomes king and turns his back on that he continues to play tricks on his lords and ministers and on his enemies. The first play (Henry IV, Part 1) ends with Hal having done what his father wanted and conquered Hotspur, the first of his victories. The second play (Henry IV, Part 2) ends with his father’s death and Hal turning his back on Falstaff. (And that’s an amazing scene. “I do not know you, old man.”) The third play (Henry V, Part 1) ends after the triumph of Agincourt with Hal winning the daughter of the king of France and being made heir to France, at the cusp of his real achievement. If it had been his glory that drew Shakespeare he’d have gone on to make his “cockpit” show the rest of Europe and the Middle East and all Hal’s conquests there. Instead, he begins again with Hal an old man himself at eighty-five, king of all he surveys, but with nobody to love, both his sons dead, tricked to the last, and his grandson and heir afraid of him.