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.


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