The Bardathon 15 – Henry V

Although it is usually ranked very highly in the canon, Henry V is a play that I have never quite warmed to. From the epilogue of Henry IV Part Two, it is obvious that Shakespeare had intended making this the next play of the sequence, but it is equally obvious that he had changed his mind about the sort of play it was to be: we had been promised a play depicting Falstaff in the French Wars, but Shakespeare had obviously realised that the man who had sneered at the concept of honour would be very much out of place here. And so, near the start, Falstaff is killed off. The description of his death is touching and rightly famous:

Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. ‘How now, sir John!’ quoth I ‘what, man! be o’ good cheer.’ So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.

But is this the Falstaff we had known in the earlier plays? I think not. And neither is this the Mistress Quickly who had been arrested by the beadles because some men had been murdered in her tavern. This is all somewhat sanitised, cleaned up – sentimentalised, if you like.

I am not sure how much continuity we are to expect from the earlier plays. Henry V is not the Prince Hal we knew in the earlier works. I do not know whether Shakespeare is depicting a character who has had to change radically from his earlier self, or whether Shakespeare is depicting someone entirely different. But I liked Prince Hal, and I don’t know that I care much for this king who, despite clearly being an intelligent man, displays none of the sharp wit or the incisiveness and subtlety of thought of his former self. If Hal has changed, the change does not appear to be for the better.

This Henry likes to present himself as a “man of the people”. And the people love him; he’s a “bawcock” – he’s “one of us”. He has the common touch – he and his men are “band of brothers”. And of course, to project such an image, he has to present oneself as blunt and straight-forward. In the same way, in Julius Caesar, when Antony wants to present himself as a man of the people, he describes himself (quite hilariously, given the subtlety of his intelligence) as “a plain, blunt man”. (The situation hasn’t really changed so very much: when it came out a few years ago that the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown enjoyed reading Wordsworth, his spin doctors were on to the press immediately to assure them that Brown also enjoyed listening to some rock band.) But what I wasn’t sure of in Henry V is whether he is deliberately putting on this “plain, blunt man” act, or whether the face had grown to fit the mask. Here, we hear him speak of the importance of honour in much the same way that Hotspur had done in Henry IV Part One: Prince Hal in that play would have regarded that sort of thing with an amused irony, but, goddammit, he seems serious here. And then there is that famous “band of brothers” speech:

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

All very rousing, but it’s strictly for the birds. When the dead are counted afterwards, the nobility on both sides are counted separately from the ordinary people – the “vulgar” – and it is made clear that the former are significant, the latter aren’t.

Shakespeare did seem to have a residual cynicism about all this jingoism. This is, without doubt, a patriotic flag-waving pageant, but Shakespeare was shrewd and intelligent enough to put in a number of very dissonant notes. However, the dissonant notes, though prominent, do not dominate: it is the flag-waving that we remember most, and it is not something I have ever enjoyed.

Of course, Olivier famously used this play for propaganda purposes during the war. But in WW2, the enemy was very identifiably evil, and the Allied cause very obviously just. In this play, the cause is more dubious. What exactly is the cause of the war? In Henry IV Part Two, Henry IV had advised Prince Hal to engage in foreign wars to ward off the possibility of civil conflict: but that motivation is not even hinted at here. In the first scene of this play, two bishops agree to encourage the war as a means of diverting attention from a bill that would rob the church of much of their wealth: it’s a very cynical reason. Is King Henry aware of this motivation on the part of the bishops? Prince Hal would certainly have been, but if King Henry is aware of it, he shows little sign of it. Instead, he listens very carefully to an account of various genealogies that justifies his dynastic claim to the French crown. How seriously did Shakespeare take such reasoning? In Henry VI Part Two, the Duke of York makes claims on the English crown with similar reasoning, and Shakespeare isn’t at all sympathetic to him: indeed, later in the same play, Shakespeare parodies this sort of thing when he makes Jack Cade make similar claims with similar reasoning. Cade’s reasoning is, of course, absurd, but its very absurdity brings into focus the flawed nature of York’s claims. And now is this same Shakespeare taking seriously the claims of King Henry to the French crown?

We are certainly not spared any of the details of how ghastly war is. Henry’s speech outside the walls of Harfleur makes quite clear that Shakespeare had no illusions on the matter:

Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villany.
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes

Not much of the glory of war there. This is, of course, realistic: this is what war is like. But given that war necessitates this sort of thing, how can one justify going to war merely to fulfil dynastic ambitions? This point is touched upon here, but not looked into very far. The night before Agincourt, Henry goes amongst his men incognito (once again, he wants to be “a man of the people”) but what he hears disturbs him: if the war is not just, then Henry will have to answer for it with his very soul. Henry has no reply to this. It is a powerful dissonant note, and this strand of the plot is later resolved with by a bit of knockabout comedy, but the question remains unanswered: it seems swept away in the overall mood of patriotism and flag-waving.

And finally, there is Henry’s wooing of the French princess, where, once again, he puts up the “plain, blunt man” act. Is it really an act? Or has he actually become like this? The whole wooing scene is frankly rather brutal: Henry seems effectively to bludgeon the princess into submission. This is miles away from the subtle wit and intelligence, and, indeed, humanity, of Prince Hal. Maybe this is what it takes to be a good ruler. If so, I see little to celebrate: the character of Henry V is much coarsened from that of his former self.

There are a few other dissonant notes in the play – as in that shocking moment during Agincourt when Henry orders the prisoners to be slaughtered (Olivier understandably removed this from his wartime film version). But the overall mood is celebratory, and I am afraid it is a celebration that I cannot bring myself to join. For all its considerable merits (not least in its splendid rhetorical passages), compared to the two Henry IV plays, this play is – as Desdemona might put it – a most lame and impotent conclusion.

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