Saturday, August 6, 2011

Henry V by William Shakespeare

CHORUS: O, for a muse of fire that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment.

You will forgive me for skipping straight from Henry IV pt. 1 to Henry V without reading the second part of the trilogy; I am taking part, you see, in the NEH Summer Shakespeare Institute at Columbia University and this is one of the plays we have been asked to read. While I enjoyed it more than the other two (The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet) it has less immediacy than 4H1, and without this class I may not have appreciated it as much as I do now.

Henry V is, more than anything else Shakespeare wrote, a war-play. Henry, the once reckless Prince Hal, has ascended to the throne and wants to legitimize his power by invading France, having a (somewhat tangential) claim to that country's throne. The Dauphin, the heir to the French throne, thinks that this is a hilarious prospect and sends Henry a gift of tennis balls as a jest regarding his reputation. Henry's response would surprise the Dauphin for its savagery, if he could hear it:

And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gun-stones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them; for many a thousand widows
Shall this mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin's scorn.

Whether this causes you to like Henry more or less I will leave to your judgement, but it resounds with the king's personal history. Though he has cast off Falstaff and his Eastcheap companions, the king does love a good mock--later in the play he plays a somewhat more harmless trick on a pair of his men--but there is no joy or levity in this speech; Henry's jesting has become much more humorless and much more dangerous.

This is just one example of how problematic Henry's war-making is. The most famous lines from the speech are Henry's rousing speech before his unmatched soldiers prior to the Battle of Agincourt, on St. Crispin's Day:

The story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered--
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Shakespeare clearly bestowed Henry with all of his own verbal prowess, and Henry's ability to inspire gulls many of us into taking his claims to glory and honor seriously. They are, of course, quite serious, but they are not the only thing that exists in this play. Henry's words and actions are repeatedly parodized by a group of soldiers in his army that were once his friends at Eastcheap. So Henry's memorable call, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, / Or close the wall up with our English dead!" becomes Bardolph's ludicrous, "On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach!" While Henry refuses to make a deal with the French and rationalizes his decision to kill his prisoners of war, the Eastcheap soldiers steal remorselessly, shake down French soldiers, and engage in petty squabbles. Henry himself promises that the battle will "gentle [the] condition" of the commoners who fight with him, but when the list of the dead is read out, he forgets everyone but the titled corpses.

At the same time, we are constantly reminded that we are sheltered from this war. There are no actual scenes of battle--unless you count when Fluellen beats Pistol senseless with a leek--and the chorus reminds us repeatedly that we are watching only a play. The sense that, through theater, we can share in the glory of one of England's most admired monarchs is repeatedly undermined. We are so enamored of Henry and his golden tongue that we--like Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier--may miss the many signs that the war Henry fights is not the one he describes. Am I the only one that thinks the bravest, most honorable character in the play is the soldier Michael Williams, who refuses the king's money as recompense for the practical joke that Henry plays on him?

(Perhaps I am not--members of the Supreme Court and other judges found for the French during a 2010 mock trial.)

In the end, I must admit that my perception of war in the play is inextricable from my opinion of Hal's character and actions in the first part of Henry IV, and my general attitude about Shakespeare's political opinions. But there is much in the plays for Branaghs and the Oliviers of the world to point to, and ultimately that is a testament to Shakespeare's unequaled ability to negotiate multiple perspectives without giving any supremacy.

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