Friday, February 20, 2009

Henry V - Closing Thoughts

It’s been a long time coming, I know. I’ve been bogged down in papers, and so on, and so on, and my students cannot seem to look beyond the ideas about “Romeo and Juliet” that their 7th grade teachers clearly hammered into them. Whatever.

As a way into summarizing our conversation about Henry V, I’d like to seize upon CNN’s commentary on Ronald Reagan that Randall astutely noted: “His language gave meaning to a national triumph, comforted Americans in a national tragedy and made complex international policy disputes understandable to millions. He spoke in clear, simple terms ― too simple, his critics said ― and painted vivid pictures that sometimes reflected a reality of his own making." It seems to me that this idea of language imbuing events with significance and, in fact, reifying for others a vision that begins in a solitary consciousness ties all of our ideas together.

Gil discourses on the relative Christianity of the play, and eventually arrives at the conclusion that “Henry is a Christian king, yet almost all his humility before God is part of the fabric of public presentation.” Our conversation, in its various incarnations, has focused on the role of Henry’s presentation – the only Henry we in the audience, or his soldiers in the field, or his peers at court experience is the outward Henry. This might be a pretty terse summary, but we seem to be pointing in a simultaneously obvious and completely counterintuitive point: if great leaders have a kind of depth to their characters, they sacrifice an ordinary human depth, which is retrospectively divined from consistencies in our behavior over a period of time, for a prophetic depth, in which their character is always on the verge of becoming but has never been before. They project themselves into the future with their language, and the extent to which others act upon the received veracity of that language largely determines their success as leaders, their very reality as such.

I’ll return to William James, whom Gil quoted early in our conversation. At least, I think it’s William James. “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process … Its validity is the process of its validation.” We spent a great deal of time trying to figure out who the real Henry is, as though his actions and his language necessarily proceeded from or according to or in contradiction with his real self; but in the end, the Henry that we have is less the Henry that was than the Henry that he built for others to believe in.

On to a comedy…


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