Friday, August 18, 2017

Henry V by William Shakespeare

I'd never actually read Shakespeare's Henry V all the way through before. I'd read a couple of the scenes, for sure, and had seen the Kenneth Branagh film two or three times. So reading the whole play was rather an eye-opener.

Following the accession of hellraising Prince Hal to his father's throne as Henry V, he's shocked everyone by reforming himself into a competent, smart, and vigorous king. As his old companion Sir John Falstaff dies slowly of a broken heart, the new King Harry gets permission from church authorities to invade France, the crown of which he claims in right of his descent from the French princess Isabella. Once in France, however, the English find themselves dramatically outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Will they survive the looming battle at Agincourt? Of course they will, with the help of the most rousing speech ever given in the history of the world. Bask in the awesome:
This 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 rememberèd-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day 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 a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
By the time Shakespeare wrote Henry V, he'd already written most of his other history plays. He'd begun with one four-play cycle on the reigns of Henry VI and Richard III, and then went back through Richard II and Henry IV. Henry V is the last and probably the most beloved of these eight plays, and just as Richard III made a villain everyone already loved to hate, Henry V made a hero everyone already loved to love. This play is about a desperate foreign war, but it comes as a rather bright spot amidst a long and exhausting series about civil war. It's a bright, youthful, valiant play about a heroic young king on adventures in France.

Or is it?

Ambiguity is the word that has come to mind every single time I've sat down to write a review of these Shakespearean history plays, and lo, here it is again.

On the one hand, Shakespeare makes King Henry a thoroughly likeable character. Where Richard II was verbose, Henry V is simply inspiring. You wished Richard would shut up; you want Henry to go on. Richard had an over-inflated sense of his quasi-divine entitlement to the throne, Henry takes every opportunity to remind his men that he loves them and considers them his brothers. Richard treated his nobles like peasants, but Henry treats his peasants like nobles. Whether it's the rousing Harfleur or St Crispin's Day speeches, or whether it's Henry's conversations with his men in disguise the night before Agincourt where he argue's that "every man's soul's his own", or his soliliquy on how the only thing that makes a difference between himself and an ordinary person is ceremony, at times this play seems almost anachronistically democratic for Elizabethan tastes. Indeed, these English democratic ethics are implicitly contrasted with the French, who come around after the battle to bewail their dead knights and lords who are all jumbled up on the battlefield with peasants and commoners.

You like Henry in this play. How can you fail to like someone who treats his men so well, someone as adorably awkward around the French Princess Katharine as he is, someone who knows so well how to inspire others, someone who at times seems to act so nobly toward his enemies?

But you don't even have to look very closely to feel uncomfortable about Henry V.

One thing that began to bug me the second or third time I saw the film, and that became very clear as I read the play, was how constantly Henry shifts the blame for the war onto others. He clearly understands the cost in human lives, suffering, and resources that war exacts. In fact, he's constantly talking about it, sometimes in uncomfortably graphic terms. He warns the church officials not to sanction his invasion of France unless they're willing to bear the guilt for this. Later in the very same scene he blames the war on the Dauphin for insulting him. At Harfleur he intimidates the garrison into surrender by threatening a ghastly sack of the town, which he has the nerve to say will be their fault. Henry seems to be roughly on the same moral level as the schoolyard bully who (slap) wants you (slap) to stop hitting yourself (slap).

By the time of the night before Agincourt, when the king in disguise states, "I could not die anywhere so contented as in the king's company, - his cause being just and his quarrel honourable", and the soldier William responds, "That's more than we know", the line hits us between the eyes. It's more than we know, too. And we know much more than William does.

We know, for instance, that Henry IV's dying advice to his son in the previous play was to avoid civil war by busying his nobles with a foreign war. We know that corrupt church officials have offered Henry a huge bribe plus permission to go to war in France if he'll help them politically. We know that Henry is a foreign aggressor invading a peaceful country without any provocation whatsoever. We know that before Harfleur, Henry turns down the opportunity to make peace by taking Katharine's hand and a number of French dukedoms.

But this isn't the only dark side to Henry V. There's also a dark side to him personally. In my reviews of the Henry IV plays, I said that I thought Shakespeare didn't mean audiences to see Henry as treacherous for planning to abandon Sir John Falstaff and his other lowlife friends. I still think Shakespeare was trying to show that Henry needed to mature past Falstaff, but in this play he hints that Henry has treated Falstaff badly. The scene in Act 2, for instance, where Henry righteously unmasks and condemns three friends who have betrayed him to the French ("Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,/That knew'st the very bottom of my soul,/That almost mightst have coin'd me into gold") is bookended by scenes at Eastcheap in which Falstaff is dying: "the king has killed his heart." Henry has been betrayed, but he has also betrayed his own friends.

This is underlined, rather chiastically, in Act 4 when the Welsh Captain Fluellan compares Henry with Alexander "the Pig" (or the Great, misunderstood and comedically mispronounced). Fluellan gives us a list of completely irrelevant comparisons--both of them were born at places beginning with an M!--but finishes by saying that Alexander killed his best friend. Just like Henry turned away "the fat knight with the great pelly-doublet."

So in Henry V, is Shakespeare depicting a hero or a villain? I tend to suspect that he attempted, with surprising skill, to do both. Henry V is a genuinely charming character, with many genuinely heroic qualities, but he's also got a very decent helping of the villain in him. One feels keenly that he would not be half as taken by Princess Katharine if she didn't come with France thrown in, but one feels equally certain that having married her, he'll do his best to make her happy for the rest of his (perhaps deservedly) short life.

Henry V is a great play, containing some of the best things Shakespeare ever wrote, but it's not by any means a simple read.

I've seen two productions of Henry V. Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version is definitely the one to go for. Despite its rather low-budget production values, it's wonderfully hammy in all the right places, with Branagh himself, Emma Thompson, Judi Dench and Ian Holm all providing great performances. This version plays the story fairly straight, with Henry as a hero, although the ambiguity is well and truly still present in the dialogue.

The Hollow Crown production with Tom Hiddleston as Henry has a similarly low budget, but clearly tries to bring out a bit more of the ambiguity inherent in the play, although I fail to grasp the logic behind some of the directorial decisions (why include the slaughter of the French prisoners but not of the English baggage-train?). Hiddleston's performance is lower-key than Branagh's; he seems more self-aware, more doubtful of his own rhetoric. Which, actually, I don't think was the best decision for the play. Henry V can be portrayed as villainous or heroic and probably should be, but I feel that he only has power if he does believe what he's saying. I actually would have liked to see Hiddleston in full Loki mode as a charismatic tyrant; that might have been iconoclastic, but oh so much fun. Maybe someone else will do that one day...

Find Henry V on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

2 comments:

Christina Baehr said...

Great review. I saw a Bell Shakespeare production of the play years ago, with Joel Egerton. It was very well done, and did bring out both Hal's charisma and his ethical flaws. it was also the first times realized that the wooing scene could be played very differently - when Branagh says he's no good at wooing it isn't really convincing, is it?!

Suzannah said...

Christina, ooh, that sounds fascinating. Would have loved to see it.

The amazing, somewhat annoying thing about Shakespeare plays of course, is that each performance can be so different; you don't really want to just have one version because each has such different strengths!

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