Saturday, January 31, 2009

Henry V - Performance Log (January 2009)

Henry V
Directed by Davis McCallum
The Acting Company
At the Guthrie Theater
Minneapolis, MN
January 28, 2009

In a promotional video on the Guthrie Theater's web site, actor Matthew Amendt, who is currently playing King Henry V in The Acting Company's touring production of Henry V, says he thinks the play is about Henry's "leadership," as opposed to his being a "great hero" or "monster." Christian Conn, an Acting Company teaching artist who flew in from New York to work with St. Paul Academy and Summit School's Shakespeare classes, saw the show and over lunch the next day mentioned to me that the production was really about "leadership." Prior to the performance, to which we took 117 students this week, we attended a pre-play discussion with Staff Director Ian Belknap, who told the audience that The Acting Company's production would focus on "leadership."

Well, I'm not one to ignore a clear talking point, but the Acting Company's production doesn't hammer, explicitly, on the leadership theme; to suggest that it does is like saying the Olympics has a lot to say about sports. Gratifyingly, though, the Acting Company's Henry V does have a tremendous amount to say about theater and from this emerges an implicit definition of leadership, and a very interesting Henry.

1. Director Davis McCallum has taken seriously the Chorus's request that the audience let the play and company engage its "imaginary forces." Upon taking our seats we are greeted by a sturdy, convex, dark wooden wall, about 15 feet high ("May we cram within this wooden C the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?"). At first I thought the whole wall would be pulled backward when the play began, giving the actors room to recreate the vasty fields of France, but no. The 12 cast members, who play 40 roles, are limited throughout the performance to a semicircular space roughly 25 feet by 15 feet. It feels a little like watching Shakespeare in your living room (if your living room is dominated by a tall wooden wall, a rectangular table on wheels, and a couple small stepped platforms). The set, designed by Neil Patel, makes it plain that there will be little to distract us from the characters and, by association, the actors.

The costumes, designed by Anita Yavich, also emphasize the theatrical experience. Because everyone but Amendt plays multiple roles and because McCallum keeps the action moving along at a quick pace, the transitions actors make from character to character need to be … um … seamless. To this end, the costumes are mostly monochromatic (brown and gray to match the wall) and modular. St. Paul Pioneer Press critic Dominic Papatola wrote that they "look as if they were rejected from some Star Trek spin-off," but he's being deliberately unkind. The traitor Scroop becomes the Dauphin in the next scene? He just slips a teal sash over his English tunic. An English noble becomes a commoner, like Nym or Bardolph, by simply unzipping a sleeve or two or a tunic. The zippers are key here as both design elements and facilitators of the actors' quick changes. Combined with the puttee-like wrappings on the soldiers' legs which suggest WWI and with breastplates worn into battle which suggest a more Medieval period and with Henry's Darth Vader-esque gauntlets which defy placement in time, the visible zippers add a modern touch, blurring the production's setting, again shifting the emphasis to the characters.

Yes, it can be a bit of a chore telling people apart. Freddy Arsenault, for example, plays five characters ― Scroop, the Dauphin, Macmorris, Bedford, and Williams ― and minor adjustments in costume only make that more difficult. What to do? Well, I would argue that the Acting Company actors act. And further that the costumes, like the set, intentionally emphasize the acting because their monodesign makes what the actors are doing the most important distinguishing factor between the characters. And finally that this is a good thing. Consider the old saying, "the clothes make the man." Here, if you're essentially wearing the same clothes as the other guy, it's up to you to establish your self ― no relying on the fancy chartreuse pantaloons and violet doublet and wrought leather gloves the costume designer slaved over for you.

So, with the distinctive but muted design approach, the Acting Company has created a production that spotlights the text and celebrates the way that actors bring it to life, relying on how Shakespeare's language shapes character and the audience's imagination.

2. As the design elements seem to be subordinated to the characters in Henry V, so the play's characters seem to be subordinated to Amendt's Henry. Look at the blocking. In almost every scene, Henry is placed at the center of both stage and characters. His costume is a bit more expressive, subtly differentiated from everyone else's, his physical presence a bit more dynamic. This Henry tends to swagger, his arrogance reflected in both tone and movement. He rolls around the stage, chest out, shoulders back, claps men on the shoulder, winks, or stands stiffly erect, evaluating situations. He's not charming; he's not common; he's not imperious; he's not patriarchal. He's a bit of a chameleon, but not in a calculating way. I didn't see him as a Machiavellian hero. In short, he's a man, a young man, complicated, slightly different at different times with different people or in different situations, capable of both ruthless violence and tears.

In addition, despite what the Bishop of Canterbury says of him, Amendt's Henry is not a rhetorician. McCallum makes this clear in one specific instance and in a general way. In the specific, Henry is responding to the French ambassador in Act 1, scene 2. When he gets to the capping couplet ― "And tell the Dauphin / His jest will savor but of shallow wit / When thousands weep more than did laugh at it" ― Amendt pauses just prior and silently counts out syllables in the air with his fingers. This consciousness of crafted language punctures the rhetoric and sets the tone for a king who has a complicated relationship with the ceremony of his position. In general, the lofty speeches ― his response to the tennis balls, St. Crispin's day, his defense of kings to Williams ― all avoid linguistic grandiosity in favor of honest emotion and directness. His words don't soar, although they are felt. Although I love Branagh's approach to Henry's language, which tends to swell with the movie's soundtrack, I really enjoyed Amendt's take. His Henry is more of a military man, nor is Amendt afraid to reveal Henry's ruthlessness. It struck me how far we've come from Richard II, Shakespeare's man of eloquence and inaction, clearly the antithesis of the Acting Company's Henry.

3. As before, I looked for a moment that shaped the production, a reading or directorial choice that stands out in uniqueness or interpretation. In The Acting Company's Henry V, I will remember two. First, I loved the way they put together the traitor scene. As the Chorus explains that Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge have betrayed the king, we watch the three of them pour a drink for Henry and add a vial of poison to it. Then as Henry seeks advice about punishing the man "that railed against our person," Scroop delivers the cup to him. This is a scene in which Henry is slyly alluding to his knowledge of their traitorous behavior, salting his conversation with dramatically ironic words like "execution," "capital crimes," and "I know your worthiness." The poisoned drink turns his lines "We consider it was an excess of wine that set him on" and "If little faults proceeding on distemper / Shall not be winked at, how shall we stretch our eye / When capital crimes, chewed, swallowed, and digested, / Appear before us?", into even more allusive puns. McCallum caps the scene, though, by emphasizing the personal affront to Henry of Scroop's betrayal. After Grey and Cambridge are removed, Henry forces Scroop to kneel and passes sentence on him specifically:

"Get you therefore hence,
Poor miserable wretch, to your death,
The taste whereof God of His mercy give
You patience to endure."

In this speech, Henry has handed Scroop the poisoned cup, and the word "taste" directly enjoins Scroop to drink from it. He does, and then is carried from the stage, screaming, as he dies in agony. It's an arresting moment not only because it is so violent (in plot and in reaction) but because it shows us Amendt's Henry is a man of action, willing to get his hands dirty, not just sit back and pass sterile judgment.

McCallum repeats this later in the Agincourt battle. After the bit in which Pistol has captured his rich French gentleman, the scene shifts to Henry who is not sure how the battle is going, and when he hears the French remounting an attack, he commands that "every soldier kill his prisoners." Amendt then moves to a French prisoner and breaks his neck.

As an aside, has anyone written about the rise of the from-behind, head-twist, broken neck move that has become the dominant mode of underling villain dispatch by our vigilante heroes like James Bond, Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible movies, and Kiefer Sutherland in TV's 24? No, I haven't gone back to see if these particular heroes employ this manoever, but I have noticed that the move has become something of a cliché in action films. It's minimum violence, violence without blood, which is why we often see its use relegated to taking care of henchmen. The move projects strength, superiority, and none of the challenge reserved for final protagonist/antagonist conflict. Henry's use of it here associates him, I think, with the modern film action hero although it may just be an innovation in contemporary stage fighting technique like the now ubiquitous use of martial arts. But it's use is also about efficiency, and the directorial choice ― Henry kills! ― once again associates concrete action with the play's rhetoric.

More interesting is the prisoner Henry kills; it's the same man Pistol spared (for 200 crowns). This puts Pistol in the same group of rebuked former friends occupied by Falstaff and Bardolph. And it also establishes more of a reason for Pistol's unrepentant exit an act later, when he vows to return to England and be a thief. Both moments, the prisoner's execution and the rebuke of Pistol, expose a subtext for Henry, amplifying his complicated relationship with the "ceremony" of kingship. (In his soliloquy, Amendt removes his crown and holds it before him, asking "What art thou, thou idol ceremony," making the crown the symbol of ceremony, a much more concrete and precise image than the rhetorical apostrophe I took it for. )

4. So is The Acting Company's production of Henry V about leadership after all? Isn't leadership about turning words into action, either one's own or others'? Perhaps. I find the term too general, however, to define Amendt and McCallum's Henry. Isn't Olivier's patriotic Henry one definition of leadership? Isn't Gil's consummate politician Henry one form of leadership? Aren't all the heroes, monsters, Christian kings, and terrorists variations on leadership? Kings by definition are leaders. Even Richard II or the young Henry VI teach us something about leadership, by the example of its absence. What I liked about The Acting Company's Henry is that he is, above all, a man. Not an icon, not a symbol, not an object lesson about how to turn a misspent youth into a successful political career. Watching this Henry, I felt I understood him. I didn't necessarily like him, but I understood him. And I especially liked that he was not swept away by a lot of unnecessary production effects. (The occasional cannon blast here is simply provided by the actors toppling the big table onto the floor.) This is a purist's argument, but The Acting Company pulled this off with only three necessities: the text, good actors, and the audience's imagination. The beauty of Shakespeare is that that's all he really needs.

Logged by Randall
Photo (l to r): William Sturdivant as Westmorland, Robert Michael McClure as Gower, Matthew Amendt as Henry V, and Freddy Arsenault as Bedford. Photo copyright: Michal Daniel.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

RE: Henry V - Beware the Babakitis

Film Buffs, indeed,

What a sprightly re-view of the Henry V films. When Randall first announced "Monday Night Shakepeare," I was reading Henry V and my eye fell on the perfect motto: "Therefore, my lords, omit no happy hour" (I.ii.300). Indeed, apparently Randall and Derek got all the way to act four of Peter Babakitis before the Rogue Ales (that's Ashland, Oregon) Shakespeare Stout ran out.

But Randall's conclusion, that Babakitis is "the worst version of Shakespeare on screen" is a challenge to us all. Surely … I have not seen Babakitis yet, so I'll have to stick to the comparative "rilly bad" rather than worst. I'm going to leave out Prospero's Books because I may just be too dim-witted for it, whereas some people I know and (used to) respect have proclaimed its greatness. Except for the novel concept that The Tempest's deserted island, apart from Caliban and Ariel, is inhabited by 500 to 600 nudists, heretofore overlooked, I find the film unwatchable.

Randall's comment that Olivier yells a lot in Henry V is fair, though the single most scenery-chewing "great" actor in Shakespeare film is John Barrymore as Mercutio in George Cukor's Romeo and Juliet (1936), but then he really must raise his voice to be heard over the swelling score. But the worst…

Think of Hamlet, directed by Clestino Coronado (1977), "a triumph…extraordinary visceral appeal…raw life, style and sense of imagination…stunning immediacy which often has the hair crawling on the back of the neck." Helen Mirren as Gertrude and Ophelia and Quentin Crisp, that gay icon of the seventies, author of The Naked Civil Servant, as Polonius. Anthony Meyer and David Meyer play Hamlet. What? Mirren doubles while the identical Meyer twins halve themselves (?!?) in order to emphasize Hamlet's "split personality." Oh, and they play him in the nude. In the buff. Not one nude twin for the inner Hamlet and the other in "too too sullied" dress, the "nighted color" of mourning. No. They are both naked. If you can film in 16mm, this one may be in 7 1/2mm. Color by Crayola (the pre-school beginner's box). The only redeeming feature is Mirren able to keep a straight face for all 67 minutes.

So the razzberry goes to … "The Naked Hamlet."


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Henry V - Beware the Babakitis

Shakespeare Film Buffs,

Derek and I have been participating in something we call "Monday Night Shakespeare," an attempt to watch a different Shakespeare film every Monday night. We've been going through productions of Henry V because that's what we're teaching right now and also it's what the William Shakespeare Experience is discussing. As Hannibal Smith used to say on The A-Team, "I love it when a plan comes together."

We started with the Olivier, the first notable Henry V on film. It was the second time I've seen it, but the first time I really understood its propagandistic qualities. I still think they're easy to overlook; Olivier chooses a pretty straight line through the play, and funding from the British Ministry of Information or not, I'll never be able to see the vain and idle and senile French as analogs for the Nazi threat. I also tire of Olivier's declamatory style a bit, although this may be largely due to the empathetic experience I have when I show scenes to my high school students who, reared in a more realistic film culture, struggle with Olivier's cartoonish colors, circus atmosphere, and persistent yelling of his lines. (One student compared Olivier's Henry to Errol Flynn's Robin Hood.)

Their discomfort grows when we juxtapose Olivier's yelling with Branagh's quiet intensity (watch both "tennis balls, my liege" scenes back-to-back). In many ways, I find Branagh's Henry V to be not only the best of Branagh's Shakespeare films but also one of the best Shakespeare films, period. (Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing might take the honor if it didn't feature the unfortunate Keanu Reeves.)

If you type "Henry V" into YouTube's search field, almost every result will be a scene from the Branagh: the tennis balls scene, the French court, and mostly the St. Crispin's Day speech. Branagh's eye throughout the film is firmly fixed on Shakespeare; he's not yet overwhelmed by his love of film and its history and the fanciful visions it can realize as he is with Love's Labor's Lost and As You Like It. Even his Hamlet, which I love, is largely homage to the power of film ― that palace hall with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, Polonius's antechamber with his curtained bed in which hides his mistress, the padded room for the crazy Ophelia (there's a padded room at Blenheim?), the vasty fields of Denmark where Hamlet watches Fortinbras's troops pass, the actual graveyard (not one, but five skulls!), Fortinbras's troops surrounding Elsinore. Such vistas! Such scope! Such cinematography! It's like Dr. Zhivago in iambic pentameter!

Branagh's Henry V is quieter, understated, heroic but full of complex character. He should watch it every week before he makes his next movie. And I'd ask Peter Babakitis to do the same. Peter: watch the Branagh! Learn a little something about both film-making and Shakespeare.

You probably haven't heard of Peter Babakitis. I hadn't either until last fall when I was doing my annual scope for new Shakespeare films. As a completist, I try to keep my collection up to date. So the presence of a new Shakespearean history play on DVD was intriguing. I found a comment from Babakitis, who wanted to promote his film through a series of school visits and discussions and sent out a statement about his vision for the play, writing: "I was attracted by this play because I thought it would be fascinating to get into the mind of this rather cold-blooded killer who believes he's doing God's work … Shakespeare gives us a sinister underside to the glory of conquest; an aspect of the play that I thought was lacking in other productions that I've seen."

This places the Babakitis at a far end of Derek's dichotomous scale, occupied at the other end by Olivier's hero king. Branagh lives in the middle with his more nuanced, realistic portrayal. Babakitis seeks to round out the portrayals, telling us he envisions Henry as a "cold-blooded killer" and subtitling his DVD with the tagline, "Warrior. Champion. Terrorist. King."

Terrorist? Really? Derek and I watched with great anticipation. Would this interpretation be imposed on the text? Or would Babakitis have unearthed lines and readings that would reveal the darker side of warcraft and Henry's character?

Well, it turns out that what Babakitis means by "terrorist" is that he will take you, the viewer, and subject you to probably unlawful acts of interpretive violence and so-called film-making. It's not Henry who's the terrorist; it's Babakitis.

For one, it's difficult to articulate fully the great talent actors bring to Shakespeare's language and to creating consistent characters until you're face to face with those who don't. All those words! They're really important! People might not get it. Babakitis attempts to add significance to Shakespeare's language (because most of the actors don't) by recording all of it in an echo chamber. Or his basement. Not sure which. The result for us was a stupefying effect, first characterized by stunned disbelief, then eventually drowned out by both Derek and I intoning "please, make it stop!"

In addition, at some point Babakitis must have worried that his audience would be bored by simply watching these characters stand around and talk, even with their echo-y voices. So he applied some super neat computer digital effects. Scenes change color as the camera cuts from speaker to speaker. The echo effect drops out and/or intensifies within scenes. Occasionally he throws in a weird posterizing effect. Add a punk girl playing Chorus who seems to drift randomly through geographic regions and structures that have nothing to do with the play. And salt with relentless close-ups of Babakitis's seemingly disembodied head speaking lines, lines, lines that must have serious meaning, meaning, meaning about something, thing, thing.

Finally, the interpretation meant to reveal the "sinister underside to the glory of conquest" never really materializes. Instead the film reveals the sinister effect of shooting a film at your local park, enjoining your friends to play major characters, and then spending hours at your computer gluing the whole thing together in iMovie. O brave new world that has such creatures in it!

On the back of my DVD, Sarah Hatchuel is quoted as saying "Peter Babakitis's Henry V … occupies a distinctive place in Shakespearean film-making." Yes it does; it is the worst version of Shakespeare on screen I have ever seen. And to put that in some context, I actually possess a number of Shakespeare porn films ― Hotel O, A Midsummer Night's Cream, Hamlet: For the Love of Ophelia. Not one of them is as unwatchable as Babakitis's Henry V.

O, for a muse of fire, with which to purge this film from my collection,

Friday, January 23, 2009

RE: Henry V - The Consummate Politician

On the night before the inauguration, Jon Stewart predicted in his inimitable way that “Obama’s speech tomorrow will make sweet, sweet love to the English language and expose Shakespeare as a talentless hack.” I think I might have the students reading Henry V right now evaluate whether Obama’s political rhetoric is any match at all. But that might be a little too easy…

Anyway, I like where our conversation is going. Gil brings out Henry’s theatricality very, very clearly. And at the end of the post, we arrive at the idea that Henry is pure theater, devoid of the inwardness that lends Hamlet, for example, or any other great Shakespearean character, that immortalizing depth.

But, see, while I’m not allergic to all dichotomies, this is exactly the one I was (and remain) wary of – the notion that all outward speech and action reflects (or distorts, for that matter) some inward, static core, what Randall and Gil have termed “character.” (I say that as though they’re the first two ever to call one’s most integral self by that name.) And the fact that there’s even that ONE glimpse of introspection – that “little touch of Harry in the night” – might undercut my whole argument, but here it goes again.

I agree with Gil that Henry has no character in the sense of that static and introspective self, but I would also argue that this trait makes Henry a MORE arresting character than the archetypal Hamlet. Unlike Hamlet, Henry (and maybe we could consider this a political function, his sense of his responsibility always being in the background), is always IN some situation, always engaged in some activity, always playing to some audience (even when that audience is sitting in the theater seats). Hamlet spends a great deal of his time deliberately distancing himself from any activity, as if to get things clear before he acts. Henry either recognizes the impossibility of clarity or he simply lacks the luxury of reflection. In a way, he’s total receptivity, total attunement – he’s aware of what a given context calls for, and he simply, well, embodies that. He’s the “plain soldier” wooing, the martyr before his men (Come thou no more for ransom, gentle herald. / They shall have none, I swear, but these my joints, / Which, as they have as I will leave ‘em them, / Shall yield them little” (4.3.126-30)), the bloody Khan before the gates of Harfleur.

Maybe, even, in his brief moments alone he’s doing only what the situation draws him to do – could he be playing the penitent before God? Giving us in the audience the tempting glimpse of psychological depth? I’m suspicious of his seemingly incongruous personae. Not in the sense of “what is he hiding?” but rather, “what if all of these are real, and all equally real?” Theatricality requires an actor beneath the role – but I’m not convinced that there’s a “real” Henry under the ceremony. The ceremony, after all, is not a small matter. I’m genuinely wondering if he’s merely giving flesh not to his own desires, but to that which others need to see. Maybe that’s ceremony.

Obama, anyone?


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Henry V - The Consummate Politician

Think, when I talk of horses, you see them printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth…well, I won't actually talk of horses, but…

Let me set aside the “Christian king” and epic hero for the moment, and I’ll try to find another way to come at Henry’s “bombastic rhetoric” as well. And even though The British Ministry of Information sponsored Laurence Olivier’s 1944 Henry V for propaganda purposes, I am inclined to deflect the centrality of “English hero” as well. Instead, I think Henry is the greatest exploration of political leadership I know, and the terms “politician” and “hero” are probably oxymoronic.

As always, I must divide the world into two parts (Derek, I hope you are not allergic to dichotomies. Remember William James said “the world is divided into two parts: those who divide it into two parts and those who don’t”): the Public and the Private (or personal). In 1 Henry IV, Hal was at his most personal (or cynical) when, in soliloquy, he accounted for his roistering behavior with the Boar’s Head gang with his “I know you all, and will a while uphold/ The unyoke’d humor of your idleness” until “this loose behavior I throw off/ And pay the debt I never promised” (1 Henry IV, I.ii.196-7, 208-9). He confides privately to the audience that the motivation for sowing wild oats was a ruse to better position himself in the public eye when he inherited leadership.

By Henry V, this has succeeded, most notably when the Dolphin responds to Henry’s claim to dukedoms in France with a “tun of treasure…tennis-balls, my liege,” appropriate to the youthful image of frivolous irresponsibility Hal had so publically and carefully calculated. I find only two, nay one, moment—the night before Agincourt―in all of Henry V in which Henry is ever as personal as he had been in his youth, not just in soliloquy but in moments such as his response to Falstaff’s “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world,” with a chilling “I do, I will.”

This play opens with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely offering us a solid exposition of Hal in 1 Henry IV and the reformed Henry V of 2 Henry IV, the wildness of his youth mortified and “consideration like an angel came,/ And whipt th’ offending Adam out of him,” even made him into a “sudden scholar.” But Canterbury and Ely are scrambling because a bill is pending wherein the state will strip all the temporal lands from the church, will seize “the better half of our possession.” However, quoth the clerics, “the King is full of grace and fair regard,/ And a true lover of the holy Church,” and they discuss how to generate political leverage over this confiscation by the state of secular land. Henry, the sudden scholar, awaits Canterbury’s research into “The several and unhidden passages/ Of his true titles to some certain dukedoms,/ And generally to the crown and seat of France,/ Deriv’d from Edward, his great-grandfather “ but presentation of this research has been postponed, owing to the arrival of ambassadors of France.

When the nobles are gathered at the presence-chamber of the palace, but before the French enter to present their embassy, Canterbury is called forth to present his research into the legitimacy of Henry’s claims to France. Notice the Archbishop begins “Then hear me, gracious sovereign, and you peers,/ That owe yourselves, your lives, and services/ To this imperial throne” [italics mine]. Henry’s decision whether to invade France will depend on whether Canterbury has indeed discovered weapons of mass destruction—no, no—whether Canterbury has parsed the law Salique to prove that Henry’s claims through Isabella, mother of Edward III, are legitimate even though the French claim “In terram Salicam muliers ne succedant: no woman shall succeed in Salique land” (I hope you have no middle-European political ambitions, Cindy).

BUT, Cambridge “discovers,” such Salique land is on the other side of the Elbe and therefore the law does not apply to France, and therefore Henry is not barred from inheriting the crown of France from his great-great grandmother, and therefore he can (re)claim the crown and, by the way, “as touching France,” the Church will contribute to his majesty “a greater sum/ That ever at one time the clergy yet/ Did to his predecessors part withal.” We are left to wonder where Henry will now stand on that confiscation proposal?

Yeah, yeah, I know you directors’ audiences went out for another glass of wine and half you teachers’ students transferred to Advanced Computer Languages rather than going through the whole Salique law business. Were I to direct this, I think I’d let the Archbishop go on and on while some of the lords-on-the-left began to nod off—the Polonius effect. [Confession: in my high-school production of Henry V, I was Canterbury. I have a high forehead and even at 16 I had wrinkles, so I was cast as the old guy. Fortunately, I can no longer recite the Salique law speech from memory.] It is a sophistical argument, a marvel of specious reasoning, probably nonsense. The key is “and you peers” (I.ii.33) which establishes the real audience for this show. Henry responds with an ‘I will do what I already planned to do” but ‘with God’s help’ (notice how often he inserts this little righteous catch phrase is these public shows).

But from the beginning, Henry has recast what Canterbury was already going to tell him, so Canterbury is made responsible for the subsequent war: “And God forbid, my dear and faithful lord,/ That you should fashion, wrest, or bow your reading…[that it] suits not in native colors with the truth.” All the blood about to be shed will be owing to “what your reverence shall incite us to.” The chorus has insisted on consciousness of imagination required by theatrical representation, reminding us that we have entered a theatre, but here Henry puts on a show before the peers to give the illusion of moral, ethical, and political judgment.

Bring on the French, the Dolphin’s messengers and the great “tennis balls, my liege” joke. Henry, fresh from humility before the will of God and historical necessity, now foregrounds the French insult and shifts into patterned rhetoric—calculated, six or seven puns on tennis, ringing the changes on ‘mock,’ some deft alliteration in the crescendo (savor, shallow, wit, weep at I.ii.296-7), and even three more appeals to God demonstrate Henry’s self-control. The Dolphin, still deluded by the old wild Hal routine, does exactly what Henry would have wished, and "outraged" King Henry responds by putting the blame for the imminent bloodshed on the Dolphin, just as he has previously done to Canterbury. And who is witness to this exchange? The nobles.

One more example: Act 2, scene 2 ― the most cleverly constructed scene in the Histories. Chorus, without context or action, tells us:

“But see, thy fault [King of] France hath in thee found out,
A nest of hollow bosoms, which he fills
With treacherous crowns, and three corrupted men―
[Cambridge…Scroop…and Grey]
Have, for the gilt of France (O guilt indeed!)
Confirmed conspiracy…
The sum is paid, the traitors are agreed.” (2.Chorus.20-22, 26-27, 33)

Then, a little Nym, Pistol and Bardolph buffer. Who can not be diverted by “Pistol’s cock is up” or “Will you shog off?” In my high-school production, Johnny Edwards always made sure “mine host Pistol” came out ‘mine hoss piss-tol.’ Then, the scene shifts to Southampton, before launching the invasion of France and opens with a gathering of lords. Bedford—that’s John of Lancaster, who in 2 Henry IV was not a particularly steadfast supporter of his brother Henry—provides prologue: “’For God, his Grace is bold to thrust these traitors” Exeter: "They shall be apprehended by and by.” Bedford: “The King hath note of all that they intend/ By interception which they dream not of” (II.ii.1…11). Trumpets sound and enter the King, attended by Cambridge, Scroop of Masham, and Lord Grey of Northumberland. Remember them? Because of the double foreshadowing, both theatre audience and the attending nobles must process everything that follows as dramatic irony.

Now sits the wind fair, and we will abroad
My Lord of Cambridge, and my kind Lord of Masham,
And you, my gentle knight [Sir Thomas Grey of Northumberland],
give me your thoughts.
Think you not that the pow’rs we bear with us
Will cut their passage through the force of France,
Doing the execution and the act
For which we have in head assembled them? (II.ii.12-18)

Our powers, cut their passage, doing the execution, head(s)—my ears, but not the traitors’, are tuned for macabre puns. Henry leads them on to extravagant declarations of loyalty such as Cambridge’s “Never was monarch better fear’d and lov’d,” certainly the second most familiar line from Machavelli’s advice to his powerful Prince, or Grey’s “Those that were your father’s enemies/ Have steep’d their galls in honey, and do serve you/ With hearts create of duty and of zeal.” Ho, ho. Who, by the way, were King Harry’s father’s enemies? The Percys: Worcester and Northumberland, so it is ironic that this expression of duty and zeal comes from Lord Grey of Northumberland, himself prepared to assassinate the king.

Henry then asks for advice about a drunk who railed against his person, and the three all go on record that mercy sets a bad precedent and they insist on capital punishment. OK. New subject. “Who are the late commissioners?” Late: 1) recently appointed, 2) “who are the dead men here? And Exeter gives each a paper, thought to be an appointment, but instead a death sentence. A nice moment on stage; while each reads, the King starts casual chat about sailing. Ho, ho. Of course, each traitor appeals for mercy, and of course the King has each on public record denying mercy for even the mildest insubordination. Off with their heads! “You must not dare (for shame) to talk of mercy.” It is a show, a stage demonstration. “See you, my princes and my noble peers,/ These English monsters” [again, italics mine] Henry could have sent them to the block back in London when he intercepted those papers suborning treason, but he brings them to Southampton and then publically puts on this show, another example of Derek's "King's theatricality," to reveal to all the nobles what awaits disloyalty.

To make sure his aristocratic audience gets it, Henry offers a powerful disquisition (160 lines), again in the formal rhetoric I associate with public presentation, on loyalty. From Richard II through both Henry IV plays, we have seen the feudal lords constantly in rebellion. No more, not after this. There is not one jot of an inner Harry, a man moved to remember that Thomas Grey has been his confident, as later he will not pardon old tavern buddy Bardolf for stealing from a French church. Maybe “God graciously hath brought to light this dangerous treason” and may “God quit you in his mercy” and “Let us deliver our puissance into the hand of God,” but these calculated public displays of power are political action at its most astute.

Thus there are no “complicating character traits,” as Randall notes, because there is no “character.” Whoa! By that I mean we never see into the inner motivations, feelings, ambiguities, none of the array of personal complexity that make Hamlet the most arresting character in all of literature. Every facet of Henry we see is another face of this public persona—blood dripping from his teeth to terrify the mayor of Harfleur into surrender; the choir master directing Non nobis and Te Deum after the incredible victory at Agincourt (brilliantly depicted in Branagh’s film); or the plain old boy mumbling about love to Katherine (who is, of course, already his prize as dictated by peace treaty). The only private Henry in the play comes after his “little bit of Harry in the night” when he confronts some dog soldiers before Agincourt, then muses on what separates kings from common men: “And what have kings, that privates have not too,/ Save ceremony, save general ceremony?” (IV.i.238-9).

And what, bardadors, is ceremony? Why, it is the public, or political, “character” of leaders.


Friday, January 16, 2009

RE: Henry V - Matthew Amendt video

We few, we happy few, we band of bard-ers,

Thanks to Doug for the link to the video in which actor Matthew Amendt talks about playing Henry V. I was struck by one thing he said:

"Henry's journey is a very complicated one. … A lot of people see him as a great hero; you know, we can think of Laurence Olivier's film from World War II and the Battle of Britain, or we can think of more contemporary productions from the '70s and '80s that see him as a monster ― kind of the classic imperialist power who's coming in and subjugating people."

I think students in Derek's class have also briefly considered these different versions of Henry, the heroic and the monstrous. Having just read the play, I have a really difficult time seeing the latter in the text. In other words, I think Henry V contains very little of Shakespeare's usual complicating character traits, aside from some internal "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown" stuff, and that it deliberately builds Henry up in heroic (both secular and sacred) terms. It even has a Chorus, somewhat unique in the history plays, who tells us what to think of Henry in pretty certain terms: this "mirror of all Christian kings," "this grace of kings," "free from vainness and self-glorious pride," whose "liberal eye doth give to everyone" "a largesse universal, like the sun." This Chorus guy could get a job as White House Press Secretary easy.

That doesn't mean an alternative isn't there, that one can't through careful editing or imaginative allusions in character and/or set design or any other production aspect of the play bring to life a monstrous Henry. If you cut the Chorus's lines and dress Henry up to look like William Westmoreland and recast the French as Vietnamese ("Therefore, you men of My Lai,/ Take pity of your town and of your people/ Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command"), does Henry V become a comment on American military misadventure?

It seems to me that any production that evokes in Henry V a negative or cyncial view of Henry's ambitions is only able to do so successfully because of the audience's modern experience of politics and war ― from the bombing of Laos to the protection of oil wells … um, Kuwaitis … from Saddam Hussein; hence, this sort of production relies on what informs the play from outside the text rather than on what the text alone provides. Nothing unusual there. We've got Freudian Hamlets, fascist Richard IIIs, postcolonial Prosperos and Calibans, and male chauvanist pig Petruchios. I very much enjoy all of that.

So here's my question, put out to all but with special direction to Doug and Stu: if you're going to perform this play, what goes into selecting a particular vision for the play? Is it true that when we read, all possibilities are available to us, but when we see and hear, we need a coherence that selects from the text? If so, how does a director typically find a path through a Shakespeare play, especially a history play like Henry V? Does one consider the audience's cultural experience as a necessary factor in the presentation? Is the audience's experience (9/11!) inescapable? When does one choose to point directly at an extra-textual allusion, like modern costuming or a picture of Hitler hanging in Henry's office in London? And if you're going to play Henry V in production in a way that suggests an anti-war statement or commentary on, say, the American experience in Iraq, does one ever end up elevating a particular agenda over the text? Is that limitation or evolution?

Amendt says he thinks Henry V is about "conflict and leadership." What do the artists do so that the audience walks from the theater, thinking "Wow, that was a great production that explored conflict and leadership," duly impressed as they head home to watch George Bush's final speech to the nation or make plans for their upcoming innaugural parties.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Henry V - Matthew Amendt video

Of interest:

This is a short video interview with Matt Amendt who is currently playing Henry V at the Guthrie. He's a thoughtful actor and well grounded in his Shakespeare (and I will mention a former company member at Great River Shakespeare Festival).


RE3: Henry V - Opening Remarks

And you know what else? I’m reminded of the TWO proclamations that Henry makes in his very public speeches, to wit: “He today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition” which itself is an echo of the Once more into the breach, dear friends speech – “There is none of you so mean and base that hath not noble luster in your eyes.”

The Christian story is all about unknown and ordinary people suddenly coming to have epic/historical significance. That Peter, this fisherman from Galilee, is involved in a world-changing narrative when he denies Christ three times as was prophesied, has no antecedent in western lit. Right? Previously, all people who do great and heroic and epic things are ALREADY great before they do these deeds. Henry seems to be playing on the Christian theme of the common man RISING to greatness…


RE2: Henry V - Opening Remarks

Great thoughts. I’ll flesh this out more and reply to the whole group, but two things right away:

Toward the end of your reply, you say, in essence, maybe he’s both the man of peace and the god of war – it might be situational. You also ask, even closer to the end, “is this the same manipulation we see in Othello (rude am I in my speech, etc)” or something. The destructive dichotomy I was referring to in my post was exactly the thing you’ve avoided – MUST he be, inwardly and authentically, ONE of those things? EITHER a man of peace OR a god of war? And if he were REALLY a man or peace, that would make his god-of-war talk evidence of some kind of pretense on his part, some manipulation.

My basic and largely unsubstantiated claim, though I didn’t articulate this well, is that for Henry, as for all people, the situation – their immediate context – has some measure of determining force. It’s possible, BECAUSE of the variety of contexts in which we see Henry, for him to be not only the merciful king, but also the vengeful Mars and the sighing lover, as well, all without compromising any basic integrity. Context plays an evocative, drawing-out role for Henry; understood in this way, none of Henry’s various appearances in the world need be any more or any less authentic than any other.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

RE: Henry V - Opening Remarks


First, welcome to Derek, and thanks for kicking off our Henry V conversation with such force. I'm definitely taking a knee in the end zone, which I hope will give me time to look up res extensa and re-read my Descartes. (Weren't the Cartesians those mythical guys who made Olympia beer?)

I'm most intrigued by Derek's question about the tension between Henry as classical epic hero and Henry as Christian model, not that I find that a "destructive dichotomy." In fact, I find exploring it to be very instructive, and in the end not even a dichotomy.

Henry V is full of heroic imagery, at the center of which we naturally find Henry. If we grant that Henry's deeds make him a "quasi-divine" "figure of great national importance" and "on whose actions depends the fate of ... a nation" (Abrams), then we might even cast him as an epic hero. Bevington suggests as much in his introduction to the play. According to the French, Henry certainly has divine lineage. Recounting France's defeat at the hands of Henry's father, Edward the Black Prince, the king of France refers to Edward's father, Edward III,

"his mountain sire, on mountain standing
Up in the air, crowned with the golden sun,
Saw his heroical seed, and smiled to see him
Mangle the work of nature and deface
The patterns that by God and by French fathers
Had twenty years been made." (2.4.61-66)

This image of Edward III strikes me as at once Christian, anti-Christian, and classical; it's clearly God-like (mountain, crown of light; doesn't the Gospel of John tell us that Jesus is "the light of the world"?), but the work of the Black Prince is ungodly ― in fact he undoes the work of God. Um, anti-Christ? After getting their butts kicked in the Battle of Crécy in 1346, the French might believe so. Perhaps the mountain here is more Olympian than sermon place, and we should see Henry as descended from more classical gods than Christian. This the Chorus confirms in the opening Prologue, announcing "Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,/ Assume the port of Mars" (5-6), as does Exeter, delivering his stern warning to the French court: "In fierce tempest is he coming/ In thunder and in earthquake like a Jove" (2.4.106-107). Derek would probably point to these as an example of the bombastic rhetoric that establishes the "other-oriented version" of Henry. I'd add that this version is exclusively external; it is applied to Henry (and others get in on the game, as when Fluellen compares him to Alexander the Great) rather than employed by him. In his self-defining moments, Henry gives a very different impression.

"We are no tyrant but a Christian king" (1.2.249) he tells the French ambassador. Derek associates that with "humility, hope, faith, and love." I'd add mercy, which even when he's denying it (traitors, Bardolph, French prisoners), its possibility is a foregrounded consideration. One can read Henry's statement as "king who is Christian," and his language is replete with examples. I lost count of the number of times Henry deflected credit for his military success, but it got summed up nicely as "O God, thy arm was here,/ And not to us, but to thy arm alone/ Ascribe we all!" (4.8.110-112). Equally arresting is Henry's pre-Agincourt prayer ― "O God of battles, steel my soldiers' hearts" (4.1.300-301) ― which might be read as an invocation of a god of war like Mars until Henry turns the prayer into a repentent request for pardon: "O, not today, think not upon the fault/ My father made in compassing the crown" (305-306).

Still another way to look at the "Christian king" phrase is Henry as Christ-like. Not since Peter Parker's costume-clad cruciate body, blood leaking from a gash in his side, is carried by the people for whom he has sacrificed himself into the cave-like interior of a commuter train in Spider-man 2 have I seen such blatant Christ-imagery. (Yes, an older generation might have gone with a Cool Hand Luke reference.) When Montjoy, the French herald, asks Henry what he's worth when the French capture him, Henry responds, "My ransom is this frail and worthless trunk" (3.6.159), an echo of the biblical "For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10.45). And there are definite Christian overtones to Henry's rejoinder to the soldier Williams, "I think the king is but a man as I am" (4.1.105-106). But Christ-like or merely Christian, Henry's character seems to place the duality of a classical/Christian hero squarely before us. And while some tension results from the contrasting imagery, I think we are meant to conflate the two.

Henry tells us, for example,

"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." (3.1.4-7)

In other words, one can be both Mars and Prince of Peace (how else do we get Crusades?); it depends on the situation. And for Renaissance play-goers, wouldn't their lives and popular culture have contained equal amounts of both? Looking back, we can find that the Chorus, Henry's PR guy, is also playing both sides of the fence. In the opening lines of Act 2, he describes the English as "Following the mirror of all Christian kings,/ With winged heels, as English Mercurys" (6-7). Here, Henry may be a Christian king but Mercury is the servant of the Olympian gods, so he's also Jove. Fittingly, we can turn to the Bible for a guide to parsing this duality, specifically in Jesus's "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22.21). Surely, the "blast of war" belongs to Caesar while "humility" is owed to God.

In Shakespeare's time, Henry must have been an irresistable hero to the newly built Globe's groundlings, part Ulysses, part Jesus, but I think Shakespeare puts one more layer on top of that: Henry, the man of the people. Drawing a stark contrast between the be-plumed, peacocky French (see Act 3, scene 7), Henry commands Montjoy to "tell the Constable/ We are but warriors for the working day;/ Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirched" (4.3.114-116). And he's not using the royal "we" here either. (If he weren't surrounded by Salisbury, Westmoreland, Gloucester, Bedford, and Exeter, one might even argue we might even see him as a working-class hero.) A mere dig at French fanciness? Just raising the muddy and bedraggled troops' morale? Perhaps. Yet when Henry woos Katherine, he describes himself, in quick succession, as a "plain king" (5.2.130), a "plain soldier" (5.2.156), and "a fellow of plain and uncoined constancy" (5.2.159-160). That's two more plains than were required for the whole battle of Agincourt. And they all come in a speech not rendered in verse but in prose.

How does a man described initially as a whiz kid in rhetoric (he can "reason in divinity," "debate of commonwealth affairs," and "discourse of war" such that "the air ... is still, and mute wonder lurketh in men's ears") suddenly become "plain" and prose-bound? Is this false humility? Is this the same manipulation that will account for Othello's claim ― "rude am I in my speech" ― that precedes his masterful description of wooing Desdemona? Or are we to understand that the language of love (and its accompanying eloquence) are not synonymous with the language of state (and its special eloquence)? In the myth-making of Henry V, Shakespeare gives us a king who is trebly great ― the ideal warrior (as epic hero), a just and moral man (as devout Christian), and a budding egalitarian (in that plainess is elevated over pomp) for the rising middle-class of England.

I think, therefore I am (I think),

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Henry V - Opening Remarks

Greetings, everyone.

I hope I’m doing this right. I just typed out some thoughts in word, and maybe a discussion will ensue. Glad to be part of the project, either way….

The tremendous scope of this play necessitates a chorus to augment the insufficiencies of set and cast, and to erase with language the gaps of time and space. But throughout the Henriad generally, and rarely so bombastically as in this play, Shakespeare draws explicit attention to the boundary, such as it may be, between some authentic and inward self and a distinctly other-oriented version of that self that interacts with the external world.

Holy crap – having now gone back to the archives of this discussion, I’m writing way, way too formally.

Here’s what lights up for me when I read Henry V: the extent to which that bombastic rhetoric becomes (or seems to become) authentic to the King’s character in a way that Pistol’s mangling of a variety of languages simultaneously undercuts. Pistol would like – but fails – to be more worldly than he is; Henry, though, seems to fit his over-the-top speeches. What is it about these characters that might shed some light on the different outcomes associated with their attempts to linguistically move beyond themselves, whatever that means?

At the same time, as I introduce this play to students and divine some guiding questions, I find myself struck by the King’s theatricality in general.

Okay, enough rambling. Here are some questions I have regarding this play.

  1. The King and those around him seem always to want to have their cultural antecedents both ways. They want Henry to be both an epic hero in the classical sense, embodying justice, courage, wisdom and temperance; but they also want him to be, as he professes himself to be, a Christian King, redolent of humility, hope, faith, and love. Does he succeed seamlessly in being both? Can a culture – like Western culture – actually balance these mostly opposing ideals?
  2. The phenomenology of incarnation is likewise at work in this play. As I teach this, I have to be incredibly conscious about avoiding potentially unhelpful and destructive dichotomies along the lines of, “IS Henry politically cynical, deliberately playing roles according to his various audiences; OR is he a true believer in his own rhetoric?” I suspect, and would like to work out, that this is a fundamentally inaccurate way of understanding the way Henry (and perhaps every other real person in the world) is. The entire question in quotations presupposes this Cartesian worldview in which there’s Henry the consciousness and then there’s the res extensa somewhere out there upon which he can decide to act in any number of ways. I know I’m getting more theoretical than I should be, BUT –

Characters keep making allusions to Henry’s genealogy: his great uncle, the Black Prince, and Ed III, and they use verbs like “invoke their warlike spirit.” The French talk about the English Lion breeding fierceness, or something. There’s this thing going on, it seems to me, where Henry both IS and IS NOT the Black Prince. He IS a man, but he’s NOT a man because he’s the king. In the same way, oddly, that Christ was supposed to be both divine and mortal, both the word and flesh, Henry in this play seems hard to pin down. He’s not being authentically one of his men when he’s speechifying about “we happy few,” but he’s not being purely a king either. It seems something other than disingenuous. I can’t figure it out. But as in both Henry IVs, there are many seeming embodiments of abstract concepts that somehow retain their abstract qualities even as they become incarnate. I’d like to understand that better.

I have more, too, but I keep accidentally deleting what I’m writing, and so I’d better post something quickly, before user error once again foils me. Nice to meet you all!


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

RE: Romeo and Juliet - Numerology Redux


Sorry to have been only a silent observer in these discussions up to this point. I have been reading with great interest.

Have you talked at all about sympathetic attraction? It's a big deal for the Elizabethans that people with a similar life experience will be attracted to each other, and there are many examples where Shakespeare shows characters who will ultimately fall in love having similar experiences. Rosalind/Orlando spring to mind. Not only that, it's pretty common and accepted that sympathetic attraction happens immediately, that is people who are meant to be together will immediately fall in love. I think we moderns are skeptical of love at first sight; maybe we put greater emphasis on making decisions intellectually. Elizabethans may have been more inclined to assume love at first sight was a good indication that two people were a good match.

The best example I can think of is the opening of Cymbeline. The first scene is essentially a narration (which is almost unreadable in its density). It lays out the all the ways that the lives of Posthumous and Imogen (or Innogen if you must) are similar. Shakespeare's audience would get from that scene: "Wow, I can hardly wait to see what happens when these two meet." When I directed it, I had Imogen and Posthumous circle each other, slowly spiraling in to an embrace all through the opening narration. We'll save that discussion for when we get to it, but it makes Posthumous' betrayal that much deeper and justifies Imogen's faith in him to the end.

On the other point, I think Lady Montague may have been killed by financial necessity: killing Lady Montague may save an actor if he comes back to double as the Apothecary. I haven't done the math on this one yet, and I'm sure there are other possible doubles, but I have been in one and seen one production that used Lady Montague as the Apothecary. He, Friar John and maybe Mercutio then have to return as the Watch in the last scene.


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

RE2: Henry V - Separated at Birth from George Bush? (3)

Well, golly. It seems like one can play this game forever. Steven E. Landsburg, a professor of Economics at Rochester, penned a piece for Slate entitled "Hail to the King," in which he likens a) Jimmy Carter to Henry VI, b) Ronald Reagan to Edward IV, c) George H. W. Bush to Richard III, and d) Bill Clinton to Henry VII. (Thanks to the Newstok article for the link.)

Because Landsburg is writing in 1999, he attempts to predict who will be our Henry VIII. The punch line is good:

"If history repeats itself, we ought to be able to figure out who's destined to succeed Bill Clinton in the White House. Henry VII was followed by Henry VIII, a man best remembered for his gargantuan appetites, his dissipative lifestyle, his troubled marriages, and his rocky relationship with the Catholic Church. The message is clear. Ted Kennedy, your time has come at last."


RE: Henry V - Separated at Birth from George Bush? (2)


It's hard these days not to think persistently of politics, whether one is reading Shakespeare or not. The Hazlitt quote you refer to is interesting because he makes it sound like the war in France was entirely Hal's own idea. But having finished 2 Henry IV, we know it was his dad, who with his last words to Hal, advises:

Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of thy former days. (2 Henry IV, 4.3.372-374)

Still, you remind us of the strong connection many have seen or made between Henry V and George W. Bush. And not all of them have been literate pundits. In an article in in 2006, former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal wrote: "On the eve of George W. Bush's presidential campaign in 2000, the neoconservative Kenneth Alderman cast him as Prince Hal who 'puts the indiscretions of his youth behind him' and 'redeem[s] his father's reign.'"

Blumenthal is referring to a piece in Washington Magazine from 1999, in which Adelman wrote:

"GEORGE W. BUSH -- Henry V. A son who wishes to redeem his father’s reign, Hal puts the indiscretions of his youth behind him to get serious and go straight: “Presume not that I am the thing I was, for God doth know [and] so shall the world perceive, that I have turned away my former self.” The young king leads a robust and relentless campaign that ends in stunning victory. (Okay, I’m a Republican, but Henry V ruled as one, too.)"

Wow. Even setting aside one's knowledge of the less than heroic eight years to follow, that seems a bit audacious, especially coming before 9/11. Note the ironic twist, too. Adelman here is using the political version of "campaign" unaware of the military ones that will come in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Writing from his perspective of hindsight, Blumenthal goes on to point out, sarcastically, that none of Bush's celebrants at the time acknowledged the Henry IV advice.

Arianna Huffington, former wife of Republican California Representative Michael Huffington and current liberal pundit and blog-meister, writing in 2004, also in Salon, extends the Henry V/Bush comparison: "The parallels between Shakespeare's wartime king and our current president George II, are many and delicious ― from the pair's hard partying younger days (Prince Hal 15th century feckless frat boy-prankster) to the challenge of following in a powerful father's footsteps right up to the critical matter of whether their wartime adventures made them courageous commanders or failed leaders."

Huffington, too, cites Henry IV's advice to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels," but she also points out the parallel implicit in both men surrounding "themselves with those in favor of going to war: Bush with his neocons, and Henry with the churchmen my fellow debater David Brooks dubbed the 'theocons'" and adds that "both the president and the king were motivated by personal animus toward their enemy," Henry because he's offended by the Dauphin's tun of tennis balls (have we all finished Act 1?) and Bush because Saddam, as the president colloquially put it, "tried to kill my dad." Huffington's not deep, but she does draw conclusions about what all this says about leadership, morality, and wars of choice.

Perhaps the finest exploration of the Henry V/George W. Bush nexus comes from Scott Newstok, an English teacher at Rhodes College, who was asked to fact-check some assertions for a Fortune magazine article about the two leaders, which came from ― wait ― Ken Adelman. In a 2003 article for the online magazine PopPolitics entitled "'Step Aside, I'll Show Thee a President': George W as Henry V?," Newstok does a nice point-by-point reaction to the various claims, and I'll see if I can get permission to reprint it on our blog. Or you can follow the link.

But maybe you want to wait until after you've finished reading the play.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Henry V - Separated at Birth from George Bush?


In that you are thinking of politics while reading Henry V, let me note Jonathan Bate (Genius, 201) cites William Hazlitt (Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, 1817), thinking of Henry V's justification for being in France on Crispin's Day as distinctly questionable: "Henry, because he did not know how to govern his own kingdom, determined to make war upon his neighbors; because his own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid claim to that of France."

The weakness, of course, is George W. Bush didn't have a speech writer who could come up with a line such as, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Romeo and Juliet - Numerology Redux

Shakespeare detectives,

Who killed Lady Montague?

I don't suppose that's a question plaguing you much as you work your way through Henry V, but I'll pose it (and answer it here) as a temporary diversion since I've just finished re-reading Romeo and Juliet.

Two years ago, I noted Shakespeare's relentless use of opposed pairs in Romeo and Juliet, and now as I read with greater familiarity I actually find it intimidating to think about the pervasiveness of the various paired motifs, images, scenes, relationships, and events in the play. I don't like to play the "intent" game but there's almost a mathematical precision to this play. From the get-go ("two households") until the conclusion (a golden statue each for Romeo and Juliet, and a balance of pardon and punishment), Shakespeare crafts the play as if he were working with a balance rather than a pen.

I've already mentioned narrative pairs, like Romeo having two girlfriends and Juliet two boyfriends. This time through I noticed a slightly deeper set of parallels in the narrative. First, in Act 1 Scene 2, Benvolio pooh-poohs Romeo's lust for Rosaline, suggesting he "compare her face with some that I shall show" at the Capulet's party and arguing that, to the eye, there are prettier women available. Romeo responds with eloquently phrased skepticism. Cut to Act 1, Scene 3, where Juliet's mother asks her to look over the County Paris at the party to see if she might consider him, by sight alone, a suitable husband. Juliet responds with diplomatically phrased caution.

What's going on here, I think, is that when Romeo and Juliet are not together, Shakespeare is establishing parallel experience, unifying them when they're apart, even as and even before they seek to join themselves as a couple. There's a really nice moment in Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996) that captures this in a visual metaphor. The first time we see Juliet (Clare Danes) she has her face in a basin of water; the image is made identifiable by Luhrmann's placement of the camera in the basin of water, looking up at Juliet's submerged head. Later in the scene, Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) is at the Capulet party seconds away from seeing Juliet for the first time. He's stoned and steps into an anteroom to clear his head by dunking it in a basin of water. Same camera angle, same image, unifying the two characters immediately before they begin their courtship.

Another example that I found intriguing in the play occurs two acts later. Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished for the deed to Mantua by Prince Escalus, bringing on two parallel scenes of distraught lovers coping with the consequences. In Act 3, Scene 2, Juliet (under the mistaken impression that Romeo has been killed) first proclaims that she has been cast by the news into hell: "What devil art thou that dost torment me thus?/ This torture should be roared in dismal hell" (3.2.49-50).

Similarly, in Act 3, Scene 3 Romeo complains that his banishment is equal to damnation: "There is no world without Verona walls/ But purgatory, torture, hell itself" (3.3.18-19). It's probably not earth-shattering criticism to note that both characters, separately, are upset by what has happened or even that the news has simultaneously made a hell of their hoped for heaven. But Shakespeare continues to offer paired events in which scene echoes scene for the two characters. Both, for example, contemplate suicide (in the presence of Friar Lawrence) when their social space collapses. And both acquire a potion, providing the "antidote" to their problem. When I finished reading the play, I resisted summarizing it in the form of a t-chart.

So, who killed Lady Montague? Mr. Montague shows up in the Capulets' fatal tomb some 200 lines into Act 5, Scene 3, and somewhat off-handedly tells the Prince: "Alas, my liege, my wife is dead tonight./ Grief of my son's exile hath stopped her breath" (5.3.218-219). Natural causes? I think not. Let's look at the numbers. The Capulets suffer the loss of two kinsmen: Tybalt and Juliet. Prince Escalus suffers the loss of two kinsmen: Mercutio and Paris. If you removed Montague's two odd lines from Act 5, the Montagues would only have lost one family member, Romeo. What to do? We must have balance.

Thus, Lady Montague is done in by … narrative necessity. I think it used a pair of pillows.


Shakespeare the Speechwriter

Okay. Octogenarian George H. W. Bush is being interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox News today (Sunday). Asked by Wallace what he thinks of Barack Obama, Mr. Bush responds: “I’m very impressed with his style on the campaign and his coolness and his articulate nature. I think he can give a sentence, and it will sound like it’s been thought out by Shakespeare or something.”

So Obama may not be Henry V specifically, but clearly there's a growing suspicion that Shakesepeare has had some hand in scripting his character. Can every U.S. president be linked to a Shakespearean character or trait?

Stay tuned for the "The History of President Barack Obama, Part 1."

Or something.


Friday, January 2, 2009

Henry V - President-Elect Hal


In a Washington Post opinion piece last October, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote the following:

"Obama has shown that he is a man of limited experience, questionable convictions, deeply troubling associations (Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, Tony Rezko) and an alarming lack of self-definition -- do you really know who he is and what he believes? Nonetheless, he's got both a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament. That will likely be enough to make him president."

I'm amused by how often our politics and politicians seem to evoke Shakespeare's. Regardless of whatever it is that Krauthammer believes about Obama's intellect, what strikes me is his concern (echoed by others) that we don't know the "real" Obama and that he's hung out with the wrong sort of people, although I'd take Falstaff, Bardolph, and Poins over Wright, Ayers, and Rezko any day.

Perhaps, if we dig up an old Obama Facebook page, on it we'll find him writing at the outset of his lengthy campaign: "Yet herein I will imitate the sun who doth permit the base contagious clouds to smother up his beauty from the world, that, when he please again to be himself, being wanted, he may be more wondered at by breaking through the foul and ugly mists of vapors that did seem to strangle him."

For 67 million voters, it sure worked out that way. So, as you read, does Obama fit the Henry V comparison?