The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes
Wednesday, September 01, 2004
The bottomless pot of Henry V
As a sort of prophylactic against campaign fever, I've been letting my mind run on Shakespeare's much underestimated and misunderstood piece  and its connection (or, if you really must, relevance - Ugh!) to contemporary politics.
Rather than a pageant (the most long-lived treatment of the play) or a psychological exploration of a soul in torment (the post-Vietnam/Branagh line), it's clearly focussed on truth and propaganda and deception.
It's bizarre to me that the prime instrument of this focus, the Chorus, is generally treated as a failure of construction on Shakespeare's part: rather like the use of a narrator voice-over in a movie. It's supposed to make it much more like a recitation than a play driven by on-stage action between the characters .
Whereas the Chorus is the essential element in exploring the themes of the play. In his opening speech, he calls the audience's attention to the fact that what they will see on stage will not make the play: an essential ingredient is their own imagination, which the Chorus will guide.
The opening drutherful declamation Oh for a muse of fire... is practically meant as the banging of the gavel to call the audience to order. Its wish, that Henry should assume the port of Mars is a clearly impossible straw-man, the more painfully the audience will come down with a bump at the Chorus' begging pardon for not being able to work such a miracle.
The metaphor he uses, of interest in these post-Enron days, is that of accounting: let the actors, he pleads, be ciphers to this great account, acting like zeroes in numbers, on your imaginary forces work.
He is brazenly offering to cook the books; his prospectus is illusion and delusion, in which the punters will be accessories before, during and after the fact.
It is, of course, exactly what we've seen in recent years: naturally, the gold standard for government is to act in secret and never be found out. Usually, a standard difficult, if not impossible, to attain. The working assumption has to be that the story will come out: media manipulation at its finest is to hide the story in plain sight: to put it on the front page of the Washington Post and for it make no impression on the collective memory. As in the case of the famous August 6 PDB (April 30).
In subsequent appearances of the Chorus, he spins the action to come - our old friend framing. But goes further so as positively to contradict that action: in his Act II speech,
honour's thoughtis followed by a reference later in the speech to the traitors about to be unmasked; and the next action in the play is the low characters quarrelling over women and planning an extra-curricular programme of thievery whilst serving as members of Henry's expeditionary force.
(The banished Falstaff had the measure of honour in Henry IV Part I.)
And (Act IV) the little touch of Harry in the night turns out to be the king going incognito to spy on his own men and hawk his conscience around seeking to shirk responsibility for waging aggressive war with some nauseating evasions.
In the Chorus's final appearance at the end of the play, we get the kicker: he reminds an audience flushed with diplomatic and military victories  that, after Henry's death, the entire boodle  was lost during his son's reign. And - the coup de grâce - loyal audiences would have known this all along, because Shakespeare had already told the tale in his Henry VI plays!
The contempt for the audience is truly monumental - one born every minute simply isn't in it!
Not, I think, that Shakespeare is any kind of pacifist. There was a genuine danger in the 1590s of an invasion by the Spanish - the Armada had been lost more through luck than judgement - and the then current military adventure, in the Netherlands, was designed to deny the Spanish use of the Channel ports necessary to mount such an invasion .
And public enthusiasm in England for the war  seems to have been sustained despite the cost - the groundlings would naturally believe the honeyed words of the Chorus, rather than the evidence of their own eyes.
If he'd wanted to write a pageant, Shakespeare clearly could have done so. Instead, what he's done is to give the impression of a pageant for the benefit of the impressionable, whilst giving the rest of us a paean of praise for the virtues of being wised-up.
And the perils of questioning Elizabethan foreign policy were well known: the Puritan John Stubbs wrote a tract, the Gaping Gulf , against the marriage of Elizabeth  to the Duc d'Alençon that resulted in Stubbs having his right hand chopped off.
By comparison, Joe Wilson got away easy...
There's a whole lot more to be got from the play - more here if the fancy takes me!
I see from the Post (May 18) that a bunch of pundits enjoyed a light-hearted session of Henry V/Iraq war read-across.
(The writer points up the Chorus' final speech too, I notice.)
He cites David Perry from the US Army War College  as using Henry V in his lectures on ethics: his class-notes and paper Using Shakespeare's Henry V to Teach Just-War Principles are online.
According to Andrew Gurr, in 1599 the leading authority in England on the law of war was the protestant refugee Alberico Gentili. Unfortunately, his 1589 De Iure Belli is not online at all, that I can find. Gurr cites Gentili on the question of Henry V's infamous order to kill the prisoners: he disapproves, without actually suggesting that the act was, according to the law of 1415 or 1589, actually unlawful (to the extent that that term is meaningful).
The prisoner issue also illustrates the need to keep historical Henry and Shakespeare's Henry clearly distinct: whilst Shakespeare deliberately has Henry order the killing (4.6.38) solely in anticipation of a renewed French attack (in which he feared the prisoners would seek to participate), and not in response to the killing by an element of the French who looted the English baggage-train of the civilians accompanying the baggage.
Whereas Holinshed - Shakespeare's main source for the play - advances both reasons ; and I have an inkling that contemporary sources, the Burgundian chronicler Monstrelet , for instance, agree.
The Post piece couples references to the codes of chivalry in operation in 1415, and to the Geneva Conventions. Chivalry was very much directed to the upper strata of the military class: civilian welfare was not a consideration.
Thus, from memory, during the siege of Rouen, when inhabitants were expelled from the city, Henry had them thrown into a ditch to die of starvation. A woman in the ditch gave birth; Henry suffered the child to be raised in a basket, baptised, and lowered back into the ditch.
I suspect there's a sermon in that...
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