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 15, 2004

Henry V and the common touch

I mentioned the play and sampled one or two of its many delights on September 1.

Shakespeare's Henry, whatever his merits as a king are cracked up to be [1], is personally a nasty piece of work.

For which the proof is not the infamous speech (3.4) in which he lays out for the Governor of Harfleur the consequences of failure to surrender the town to Henry's besieging army - which was very much the standard practice of the times - but his creepy relations with the common people.

As a set-up for the big band of brothers speech in 4.3, we get Henry - on the eve of Agincourt - mooching round the camp in disguise not - as the ever-misleading Chorus has it - to provide a little touch of Harry in the night but to do some focus group work. When he finds his band of brothers (4.1.82), they are the epitome of cynicism and despondency. To Falstaff's Credo on honour (from Henry IV Part 1), they are thoroughly devoted. And they don't think much of Henry as a leader, either.

From the faux gentleman-ranker that is Henry, we get the equivalent of the Archbishop's Salic law speech in Act I. Except that, whereas the Archbishop gave us a spurious argument about a spurious rule [2], Henry gives us arrantly dishonest casuistry on a matter of life and death.

He says
Methinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the king's company, his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.

Plainly, we are in just war territory.

His companion-in-arms, Williams, replies
That's more than we know...But if the cause be not good the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make...

He is clearly addressing the legitimacy of the resort to arms. He goes on to confuse the issue by referring to the deaths of soldiers in battle:
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...

Unfortunately, blood is their argument would apply to soldiers who die in battle, whether the war was just or unjust.

Henry then exploits this bad interviewing technique with a lengthy spiel clearly designed to obfuscate, and thereby exculpate. He chooses analogies clearly inapposite either to the just war line or the blood on hands one: first,
if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon his father that sent him...

Sinfully miscarry I assume means some sort of thievery or fraud; the analogy would hold if what were in question was war crimes committed in the course of a just war [3] - where vicarious responsibility would rightly not attach to the principal waging the war.

if a servant, under his master's command transporting a sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant's damnation.

In this case, the justice of the actions of neither master nor servant is in question. (There is no comparison between the waging of war - which may be just or unjust - and having a sum of one's own money transported from A to B! Nor does the servant have blood on his hands.)

Henry's evasion becomes yet more extravagant: he goes on to talk about the position of criminals who take up arms:
Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers.

Here, he seems to be addressing guilt by association working in the opposite direction: not the guilt of a king waging an unjust war being imputed to his soldiers, but the guilt of soldiers for crimes antedating the war tainting the justice of the war.

From this, he argues the positive merits of war in weeding out some of these miscreants:
if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God: war is his beadle, war is his vengeance; so that here men are punished for before-breach of the king's laws in now the king's quarrel...

Much the same sort of twisting deployed by the politicians of today on talk shows all the time!

He even has his soundbite:
Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own.

Does his interlocutor see through all this evasion and flim-flam?
'Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head: the king is not to answer it.

Mission accomplished.

They drift to another question - whether Henry would allow himself to be ransomed. Henry-in-disguise is greatly offended (it says here) by having the king's word (that he would not allow himself to be ransomed) doubted by Williams, and challenges him to a - not a duel, I suppose, but some kind of fight, to take place after the battle, if both survive. And they exchange gloves to identify each to the other.

So, having had to deal with a risk of civil war in Act 2 (with the Southampton Plot Three [4]), Henry was fomenting his very own little civil war!

He then launches into the most nauseatingly self-pitying soliloquy bemoaning the burdens of kingly office, contrasting it unfavourably with that of a slave. And then, after an interruption, prays for his father's usurpation of Richard II to be overlooked:
I Richard's body have interr'd anew,
And on it have bestow'd more contrite tears
Than from it issu'd forced drops of blood.

Mmm. Checkers speech!

The glove business duly plays out with tedious detail (4.7): the play-acting king [5] not a whit abashed at having invited a soldier to risk execution by proposing to do violence to the king. Having a bit of a gas at the expense of one of the little people. The man is a bully [6].

The speed with which the band of brothers is - disbanded - is remarkable. Back to
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
as the treatment of the casualty lists, French and English, makes clear.

  1. Certainly not the ostensible hero that pageant versions of the play have taken him for. Nor the guilt-racked social worker of more recent times - nor even the pre-emptive warrior. There is a deal of criticism of process; and the glee with which the Chorus reminds the audience at the end that they knew from the start that the war was a ruinous waste of blood and treasure - by 1451, England had lost all its lands in France except Calais - might suggest that Shakespeare opposed the war, though 185 years too late.

    On the other hand, he may be accepting that any king in Henry's position, seeing France not only cyclically weakened by civil strife but apparently risking some kind of permanent failure, would seek to vindicate at least the limited concessions promised to Edward III in the 1361 Treaty of Br├ętigny, but never given effect.

  2. A brief treatment. I suspect that the Bish's spiel may be less spurious than the law itself, though.

  3. The distinction between ius in bello (rules governing the conduct of war) and ius ad bellum (rules governing when war may legitimately be waged).

  4. A key fact - known to many in Shakespeare's audience - is that one of the plotters, the Earl of Cambridge, and the guy who blew the whistle on the plot, the Earl of March, both had better claims by descent to the English throne than Henry - but in the female line! Both were no-hopers: family-trees meant much less than politics and power in succession questions. Thus Philip VI, the first Valois king to succeed on extinction of the Capetian dynasty in 1328, as a vigorous adult who had briefly ruled as regent, was so far more desirable a king of France than the child Edward III (who, Salic law aside, had a better claim by descent) that the English did little, and that tardily, to press Edward's claim at the time.

  5. The trick he plays on the Southampton plotters is, perhaps, understandable in the circumstances. The one played on a common soldier - who just had risked his life to justify Henry's idiocy in flipping off the French by his long march to Calais - is hard to excuse.

  6. An anachronistic, milquetoast Oprah-ised interpretation?

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