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?


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