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!


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