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),

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