The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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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 [1] 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 [2].

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 thought
Reigns solely in the breast of every man
is 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 [3] that, after Henry's death, the entire boodle [4] 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 [5].

And public enthusiasm in England for the war [6] 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 [7], against the marriage of Elizabeth [8] 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!

  1. Amazing that the 1969 Casebook, full of bollocks, is still in print. (The 1919 essay by Gerald Gould in the tome stands virtually alone as a reading of the text that is based on actually reading the text.)

    The First Folio and First Quarto texts available here. The 1914 Oxford text available here - though only in individual scenes, not in one file. The Folio and Quarto texts line-numbering runs consecutively from beginning to end, rather than starting afresh for each scene. Bugger.

  2. Henry V is the only Shakespeare play which uses the device, topping and tailing the play, introducing each act.

  3. There's a peculiar quality to Act V: whereas the earlier acts, though necessarily edited as to content and timing, were nevertheless something of a dramatic unity, Act V, supposedly the conclusion of the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, seems almost out of time. The absurdly unrealistic courtship scene does not help: the king, in reality reasonably fluent in both French and Latin and, according to the fawning Archbishop
    Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs,
    You would say it hath been all in all his study
    suddenly Henry is an oaf.

    Naturally passed over is the fact that, in flat contradiction to his claim to the French throne by descent, Henry is, under the Treaty of Troyes to be merely heir to Charles VI. The sleight of hand as to the precise claims being made by Henry - the Act I French ambassadors are answering claims by Henry to certain dukedoms, not to the French throne - point up the historical reality: the claim to the throne was very much an subordinate alternative to claims in sovereignty to the provinces of Aquitaine (parts of which were held by Henry before his invasion) and Normandy (most of which he had conquered since 1415).

    Only in 1419, when the murder of Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy caused a lasting split in the ranks of the French nobility, could Henry aspire to the top job with any confidence.

  4. Calais excepted. That was lost by Mary in the 1550s, of course.

  5. There was a defensive element to Henry V's invasion, too: the territory he held in the south-west of France was liable to be taken by the French monarchy if only the French civil wars could be ended. French kings had been consolidating their control over territory within geographical France for centuries before Henry: English possessions in Aquitaine were peculiarly vulnerable.

    But the sense of it was wholly undercut by the impossibility of an English king ever holding France with English men and money. In territory, wealth, population, France outscored England by three or four to one. Only by going native might Henry, had he lived, have managed it: and then the English could be expected to rebel.

  6. The Cambridge edition of the play by Andrew Gurr has a deal of useful historical references in his introduction. The Oxford edition of Gary Taylor is much less useful on the history.

  7. Not online, so far as I'm aware.

  8. Citing the same Salic law - a nice piece of French spin, this! - purporting to bar succession to the French throne in the female line as exercised the Archbishop in his long speech in 1.2. Gurr's Cambridge edition introduction has details.


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 [1] 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 [2]; and I have an inkling that contemporary sources, the Burgundian chronicler Monstrelet [3], 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...

  1. There's also a US Army Origami College?

  2. On p554: the only online version of Holinshed I'm aware of is in image format on the SCETI site.

  3. The last time I looked, the Agincourt volume of Monstrelet was missing from the set available on Gallica.

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