Henry V

April 29

June 15, 2014

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Christopher Luscombe

A Scholar's Perspective

 A King’s Performance
by Michael Dobson

For all its reputation as a piece of  unambiguous jingoism, Shakespeare never composed a play that so richly embodied the contradictions of its own time as did Henry V, nor one that has continued to articulate such a range of feelings about warfare, leadership and national identity. This last of his English chronicles is tied with unusual precision to a particular historical juncture. The Chorus’s speech introducing Act V (in what, for Shakespeare, is an uncharacteristic gesture of immediate topicality), likens Henry’s joyous reception on his victorious return from France in 1415 to the similar reception that, at the time of the play’s premiere in 1599, Londoners hoped soon to give to Elizabeth I’s general, the Earl of Essex, on his impending return from Ireland. 

But even as Shakespeare was writing Henry V, it was becoming obvious that Essex’s campaign was doomed to failure.  And the play itself, faithful to the uncertainties of its originary moment, remains ambiguously poised between celebrating Henry as a national hero and pointing out the costs and the limitations of his success. The play’s image as an exercise in flag-waving derives from the fact that its most-quoted lines come from the speeches by which its eager compère, the Chorus, punctuates the action with heroic accolades – or from Henry’s own speeches as he attempts to motivate his soldiers.  Productions of Henry V have sometimes tried to make the whole play match those speeches, by cutting its more dissident voices and caricaturing the French. After its initial performances, a century and a half of near-oblivion followed, and the play only became popular again when used as propaganda during the wars against France which dominated the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Even after France became an ally to England in the twentieth, Henry V could still serve as a rousing call to arms.  The actor-manager Frank Benson’s abbreviated touring production during World War I is said to have inspired hundreds of young Englishmen to join up; and in World War II, the British government co-financed Laurence Olivier’s morale-boosting film version (1944), which Olivier dedicated to the Allied troops who took part in the invasion of France during and after D-Day.

Appropriately enough to the play’s problematic origins, the battle scenes of Olivier’s film were shot in exactly the territory which Essex himself had failed to subdue, what had since become the neutral Republic of Ireland. It is one of the ironies of war-movie history that the extras who impersonated its English and French armies certainly included some Britons who had fled across the Irish Sea in order to avoid conscription.

Their perspective would not have been entirely alien to Shakespeare’s script, however, since there is much in Henry V to suggest an anti-heroic, even pacifist, view of its events.  However starry-eyed the opening Chorus may be about the invasion of France, the play’s action begins with two worldly clerics conspiring to finance and legitimate the campaign purely so as to avoid a new tax.  Once war is declared and the Chorus has told us that all the youth of England are on fire with patriotic fervour, what we see is a group of petty criminals in a London pub agreeing to join the invasion in order to sponge off the army and commit acts of pillage.    

When it comes to the battle scenes, there are further discrepancies between the glorious events that the Chorus promises we will witness and the scenes that the play itself provides.  Henry’s nominally united English army, for instance, includes a Welshman, a Scotsman and a particularly touchy and disaffected Irishman who seem as keen to quarrel with each other as they are to fight the French.  The Chorus reports that on the night before Agincourt the king goes among his army cheering his troops, but what we in fact see is the king, in disguise, losing an argument with three common soldiers who don’t want to be there at all and do not regard the war as justified. Here as elsewhere the play’s Henry isn’t quite the exemplary Christian monarch hymned by the Chorus.  He threatens the citizens of Harfleur that unless they surrender to him his army will rape their daughters, a speech from which Shakespeare brilliantly and chillingly cuts to an apparently innocuous scene in which the daughter of the King of France, herself destined to be part of the spoils of victory, learns to name the parts of her body in English.  And at Agincourt Shakespeare suppresses the military ingenuity by which the real-life Henry’s outnumbered English force prevailed: instead of showing the king ordering his soldiers to dig the equivalent of tank-traps so as to immobilize the French cavalry and expose them to his archers, Shakespeare shows Henry ordering a massacre of prisoners of war.  In the play the king tells his surviving troops that his victory is the result of divine intervention, but to the audience it might just look like a piece of undeserved good luck. 

Henry V’s last scene begins with the Duke of Burgundy’s lament about the devastation and social disruption caused by the war, and by the end of it even the gung-ho Chorus seems to have had something of a change of heart, reminding us that Henry died soon after his victory and that his territorial gains soon proved unsustainable. It is no wonder, then, that this conflicted play about conflict should have inspired both the heroic ambitions of actor-managers such as Benson, Olivier and Sir Kenneth Branagh and the more sceptical brilliance of Sir Nicholas Hytner, who staged his modern-dress production at the National Theatre in London in 2003 as an eloquent protest against the invasion of Iraq.  Is Henry the perfect national leader, a cynical warmonger, or both?  This play isn’t propaganda, it’s drama. You decide.


Michael DobsonMichael Dobson is Director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon and Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. A former associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in 1995 he played Henry VIII for Barbara Gaines in the Chicago Humanities Festival.

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