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king henry v

4 october 2015

Henry V is a grand and stirring play, and at times an objectionable one, and it crystallizes for me what I find both progressive and reactionary about Shakespeare – and maybe offers a clue about why the play still appeals to so many readers and viewers who are mixtures of progressive and reactionary tendencies. Like me, I'm sure.

It is impossible to stage Henry V without at least a sideways glance at the current fortunes of the Empire. Laurence Olivier's film was shot in the year before D-Day and released just as British forces were struggling across France on their way to continental conquest. In 2003, I saw Adrian Lester play Henry in an Iraq-War-themed production that was much less sanguine about British military adventures. In both cases, Shakespeare's portrayal of the French posed problems and opportunities for the producers. In 1944 Britain was liberating a France that had surrendered abjectly four years earlier. In 2003 the more militarist in the UK felt that the French had surrendered before the war had begun.

Since Waterloo, the great play about invading France has not had much direct application, but the French in Henry V remain the enemy you love to hate. Insouciant, effete, and inept in one package, they get their derrières handed to them in satisfying fashion.

The play's central problem for modern readers has been Henry's order to kill the French prisoners at Agincourt. Shakespeare's timing of this decision is precise and troublesome. At the end of Act 4, Scene 6, Henry, fearing that the French will regroup after initial losses, orders the prisoners killed. (Tactically, this would free up the English guards, suppress possible prisoner riots, and terrorize the rest of the French army.) As Act 4, Scene 7 opens, the Welsh captain Fluellen is outraged that the French have killed the boys who were guarding the English baggage train. Killing unarmed men would seem light recompense for the atrocity of killing unarmed boys, but the problem is that Henry doesn't seem to know about the boys yet when he orders the men killed. Nor do the two incidents come up again, nor does anyone seem too broken up about them when the two sides get all lovey-dovey in Act 5. Because the exchange of atrocities seems somewhat tangential, it's often omitted from stage productions – or at least the English side of it is, making the French into perfect dastards – or the timing is shuffled to make Henry's actions into justifiable revenge.

Yet that's just the beginning of the list of problems in reading Henry. He is inconsistent throughout – or rather, consistent only in his will to power. He'll seize any rationalization to justify his war, and his constant ascription of every success to Heaven just makes him more unpalatable; it plays like an eschewal of responsibility. Henry is fond of making it seem like he has no choice. Some mouldy document says he's the true king of France? Gotta go kill some people. People object to being killed? Hey, it's your fault for not surrendering. He wins the city of Harfleur by threatening mass rape, but hey, that's not his fault, soldiers gotta rape. After the battle is won, Henry hits on the French princess with some smutty lines about leaping into her saddle, apparently unconcerned that he's just had a couple hundred of her best friends murdered. Even his order to execute his old pal Bardolph for petty theft, which is supposed to show his concern for the civilian population ("when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner," Act 3, Scene 6), can read like just another excuse to kill everyone in sight.

Perhaps the most unnerving scene is Act 4, Scene 1, the "little touch of Harry in the night" that is generally read as the most sympathetic view we get of Henry in the play. Disguised as a common soldier, Henry wanders the English camp, and falls in with some enlisted men who are bitching about the prospect of being hewn apart the next morning. Henry starts a dispute with them, full of precious self-reference that verges on taunting them to recognize him. Basically, for all his love of hanging out with the common folk, he thinks they're stupid, and he thinks they're wrong to express their understandable fears and resentments. In that light, Henry's admittedly beautiful soliloquy "but for Ceremony" reads more like contempt for the brutish oblivion of the common man.

And I think it's of a piece with Shakespeare's rhetoric throughout his plays. The lower classes are really, really stupid, too stupid to feel pain even, utterly thick about the big picture. In this Shakespeare is way closer to Trollope than to Dickens: for Shakespeare as for Trollope, the great are the only people whose opinions and feelings truly count in the long run. Some of them may certainly be idiots, but it takes all kinds to make an aristocracy; no peasant can ever aspire to a condition above idiocy.

And yet (and there's always an "and yet" with Shakespeare), those clownish soldiers do get their say, before Shakespeare gives Henry the last (and somewhat self-pitying) word. Unlike Trollope, who filters everything we see about the working classes through his dialogic, ironizing narrative voice, Shakespeare gives the common soldier a direct voice – and not just because he's a dramatist and must use dialogue. (In fact, Henry V is very lavish in its use of direct authorial narration in the person of its Chorus.) There's an argument (that I'm sure others have made) that the moral center of the play is never Henry at all, but the common soldier Williams:

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection. (Act 4, Scene 1)
Williams will later be pranked by the King and then basically paid off. But Williams knows what's going on. To openly tell the King what he thinks is "against all proportion of subjection"; and as he later tells Henry, "had you been as I took you for, I made no offence" (Act 4, Scene 8): implying that had Henry appeared as himself, truth would have been out of the question. Williams is a stand-up guy. His final line is "I will none of your money" (Act 4, Scene 8), which is spoken ostensibly to the choleric Fluellen, who tries to add a silver piece of his own to the King's hatful of gold. But I'm sure some directors have seized the opportunity to have Williams spurn both Fluellen's and Henry's money. That would be out of character, because Williams knows you can't speak truth to power. But it would allow the audience a glimpse of the truth.

Shakespeare, William. King Henry V. 1600. Edited by John Dover Wilson. Cambridge: University Press, 1947.