How did they (Use horses) in Henry V

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Tudor horse and rider

I must admit that that title is a bit of a trick. The opening prologue to Henry V talks about horses and invites us only to imagine them on stage.

And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,

On your imaginary forces work.

Suppose within the girdle of these walls

Are now confined two mighty monarchies,

Whose high upreared and abutting fronts

The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;

Into a thousand parts divide on man,

And make imaginary puissance;

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them

Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,

Turning the accomplishment of many years

Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,

Admit me Chorus to this history;

Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,

Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.


So at least from this passage it seems that audience members will not see any horses on the stage. The only possible evidence of horses ever being involved in a live theatre production from Shakespeae’s cannon in hi s own time comes from an eye witness description of Macbeth which describes Macbeth and Banquo riding home after the battle. This is curious because it does raise at least the possibility that something was done on stage to indicate that they were riding, as opposed to walking. It would not have been feasible to get real horses from the back stage area onto the stage – but it would have been just about possible to have someone enter on horseback through the  audience. Very few people believe this is really what they did though. I think it far more likely that you must simply think of horses when they are mentioned.

What this passage does draw attention to is how much Shakespeare was happy to ‘tell’ his audience relying on their imaginary powers to make an army from a few men, to turn day to night, to imagine a complete and bloody battle on stage and to imagine years passing in a few hours.  Today it is common to see the dimmed lights for night time, many extras for an army, reasonably realistic fighting and even occasionally some kind of representation of horses. But today’s theatre though more literal than Shakespeare’s in its desire to show us what we might see is less extreme in that regard than Victorian theatre. In the 1800’s it was common to see hundreds of extras, amazingly real and well researched backdrops and even on one occasion real rabbits (though not horses) to complete the magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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