on 20 February 2016
"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead! In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility; But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger" (III, i, 1-6)."
This play celebrates one of history’s most amazing military upsets. This was the English victory over the French at Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War. We get a some small amounts of comic relief as the action progresses but there are no major sub-plots.
Saying that there is a reasonable amount of ambiguity in the play. This has led to diverse interpretations in performance. Laurence Olivier's 1944 film, made during the Second World War, emphasises the patriotic side. It ignores the fact that the enemy of the play, the French, were in fact allies in that conflict. Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film stresses the horrors of war. A 2003 Royal National Theatre production featured Henry as a modern war general, ridiculing the Iraq invasion.
The play is the final part of a teratology, preceded by Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2. The original audiences would thus have already been familiar with the title character. Henry was depicted in the Henry IV plays as a wild, undisciplined lad known as "Prince Harry" and by Falstaff as "Hal". In Henry V, the young prince has become a mature man and embarks on a successful conquest of France.
In analysing it, I found it easier to divide it into four parts:
1. the events leading up to the war between the English and French forces,
2. preparations for battle,
3. the actual battles, and
4. the aftermath of the war.
And here are a few of the main themes that I noticed:
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A KING
Henry V investigates the relationship between a monarch and his people. Henry takes on many roles as the play progresses. These include an absolute ruler, a merciful Christian, a warrior, a patriot, an optimist, and an eloquent orator. Perhaps the most important role Henry takes is that that of a vulnerable human? He imagines how it would feel to sleep the peaceful sleep of a common man, unburdened by kingly responsibility. This responsibility includes a decision to go to war. For me Henry based this on some dubious reasoning. He vindicates his decision to invade another country by some obscure genealogical interpretation.
Also, Henry’s bloodthirsty speech at the siege of Harfleur, and his order to kill the French prisoners, is morally unjustifiable. He also rejects his friend Falstaff. He allows Bardolph, to be hung. Does he embody the four cardinal virtues of justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence? Maybe not?
Modern readers such as myself tend not to view war as a glorious or heroic. We distrust our leaders, and condemn wars of aggression. In this context he appears to be a good leader but perhaps not an ideal king? The play suggests that the qualities that define a good king are not the same qualities that define a good person.
THE NEED FOR AND NATURE OF WAR
In Henry V, appearances shift time and again. The characters on stage struggle with falseness, for example is Henry a hero or a villain? The Chorus highlights that even the stage itself isn't what it seems, it is nothing but:
“the flat unraised spirits that have dared on this unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great an object”.
So, does Henry V glorify war? Or does it show the ugliness and inhumanity of war?
On the one hand the play seems to celebrate Henry's invasion of France and valorises military might. On the other it can be read as an anti-war portrayal.
The Chorus refers to the looked-for military triumphs of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, in the fifth act. Henry V himself is sometimes seen as an ambivalent representation of the stage machiavel. He combines sincerity with a willingness to use deceit and force to meet his ends.
Warfare makes up the entire dramatic arc of Henry V but uses many (male only) perspectives to examine events. For examples, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry V and his advisors, army officers and common soldiers to name but a few. This allows the examination of several views on war. Henry also links religion to war too, using the argument that the war is just as it is Gods will. This is at odds to the perspective of the common man and ordinary soldier. Unconvinced by appeals to war’s godliness intelligent and courageous men, such as Michael Williams, distrust his motives. It is often seen as a measure of Henry’s integrity that he is able to tolerate Williams’s type of dissent with magnanimity.
These perspectives from many social classes and nationalities paint a diverse portrait of England. Monarchy is critical, borders and geography are malleable, its is a multicultural melting pot. There is a fluid, functional way in which the characters react to cultural differences. These merge or rupture depending on the situation. And because of the continual movement of England's boundaries; national character and patriotism a common identity is everything.
Ironically, belief in the justness of war’s does not equate to war’s efficacy. Chorus reminds us that the effects of that victory were undone by the next generation.
Shakespeare’s play has an uncanny ability to reflect the spirit of the times. The reader should not only see a production of the play but seek out and explore the play’s contradictions. Enjoy deciding for yourself.