Monday, February 2, 2009

Henry V - The Mirror of All Christian Kings

Apostles of Shakespeare,

In his "consummate politician" posting, Gil relegates Henry's religious sensibility to "calculated public displays of power … political action at its most astute," turning Henry's claim to the French ambassador ― "We are no tyrant, but a Christian king" ― into a bit of Medieval spin. I found the whole argument about Henry managing carefully his public persona both convincing and compelling.

A little over a week ago, Doug forwarded me an e-mail from a man named Jim Bofenkamp. Mr. Bofenkamp, a former college Shakespeare teacher, currently holds a class called "Shakespeare and the Bible" at two churches in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. They have covered Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard II, King Lear, Twelfth Night, and most recently, Henry V.

I have, since we started this Shakespearean odyssey three years ago, been intrigued by Shakespeare's relationship to Christianity, but I find myself pretty ignorant when it comes to both Biblical allusion and discerning specific Christian doctrine in the plays. In fact, I have felt at times that Shakespeare holds himself fairly aloof from religious dogma and that the plays' voices are startlingly secular. But Henry V has adjusted my thinking somewhat although, again, I am moved by Gil's argument which implies a secular attitude. I do realize there is a difference between discussing Henry as a Christian model and the degree of Shakespeare's devotion. Both questions, I think, are interesting.

So I wrote Mr. Bofenkamp and asked his permission to pass along the opening questions of his Henry V "Food For Thought" e-mail, sent to his class members prior to discussion. He agreed, and I offer it here, as we move into our final week of discussion, in the hopes that it will deepen our conversation, our understanding, and our pleasure. Have fun! - Randall

Food For Thought
by Jim Bofenkamp

“Following the perennial tendency of the British to identify themselves with the Israelites, Shakespeare’s sources, Holinshed and Halle, modeled English history on the Bible’s providential pattern. They arranged their accounts to teach didactic lessons known collectively as the Tudor myth. In their telling, the succession of events demonstrated God’s involvement on the side of the legitimate authorities of State and Church. Rebellion was punished with civil strife, the weakening of the nation, and consequent universal suffering. God also punished tyrannical or impious behaviour on the part of leaders by causing their fall, but history taught that disobedience of any sort would bring down divine retribution” (Marx, p. 41).

1. In connection with the above, do you see any similarities between Henry V and Moses?

2. In connection with the above, do you see any similarities between Henry V and King David?

3. Henry V is the only Shakespeare play that mentions a specific book of the Bible. Did you catch it? Which book of the Bible is it? Where is it mentioned?

4. How is the Catholic Church (and its officials) portrayed in this play?

5. Henry is referred to as “the mirror of all Christian kings” (2.0.6). Is he? When thinking about this, please try to put yourself in the mindset of Shakespeare’s time (1600) and the mindset of Henry’s time (1415), and not in the mindset of our contemporary times.

“Some readers may object a little to Henry’s obtrusive morality and his familiarity with the Most High. They may be reminded of later czars and kaisers, likewise engaged in wars of aggression, and be inclined to call it all hypocrisy or official cant. Shakespeare surely did not mean it so; the Elizabethans would not have taken it so; and such monarchs, again, like their parties, are specimens of times and manners, now long out of date, but not out of date in the age of Elizabeth” (Berman, p. 101).

6. Tying in with the question and quotation immediately above, Marx writes, “Henry is known as both the most religious and the most warlike of English kings” (p. 44). How does this square with the above? Does it square with the above?

7. “In no other play is the name of God so omnipresent, and in no other play does the language intimate so directly the terrible distance between what is divine and what is human” (Berman, p. 7). According to Open Source Shakespeare, the word “God” (in one form or another) is used 71 times (if I counted correctly): God (57), God’s (11), God-den (1), not-God (1), and God-a-mercy (1). There is also one occurrence each of “god” and “goddess.” In addition to this, I found His (1), He (1), Dieu (8), and Deum (1). And what I assume to be Fluellen’s Welsh version of Jesus, or probably more correctly Jesu, Cheshu, three times, although there are no recorded instances in this concordance of “Jesus.” I have two questions in regard to this. First, with approximately 85 direct references to God in one grammatical form or another, how are we to account for and reconcile the numerous mentions within the same text of a number of mythological gods? In the play I came across Mars (twice), Mercury, Jove (twice), Phoebus (twice), Hermes, and Hyperion. Second, a critic writes: “Although God does not appear in the list of characters He nevertheless appears in the play. Or does He?” (Bloom, p. 21). What point do you think this critic is attempting to make?

As long as I was in the concordance I also checked for instances of the following: heaven (9), soul (15), souls (5), hell (7), hell-fire (1), devil (9), devils (3), yoke-devils (1), devilish (1), demon (1), and Satan (0).

8. “Some have compared Henry’s speech in 3.3.1-43, demanding the surrender of Harfleur, to the terms of surrender for a besieged city set out in Deuteronomy 20.10-14. Although the terms of surrender in Deuteronomy and in Henry’s speech are much the same, there are no verbal parallels in the two accounts, and Shakespeare does not seem to be referring to the account in Deuteronomy” (Shaheen, p. 460). Marx, citing the same passages in both Henry V and the Bible, comes to a different conclusion, however. “And finally he directly threatens the citizens of Harfleur with a litany of lurid atrocities explicitly derived from God’s rules of siege warfare in Deuteronomy 20 which brings about the town’s surrender (3.3.7-43)” (p. 49). [Emphasis in both quotations mine.] After looking carefully at both the beginning of act 3, scene 3 in the play and at Deuteronomy 20, in your opinion, who is correct?

Please pay particular attention to two extended sections in act 4, scene 1: lines 124-191, “Henry’s discussion [with Williams and Bates] on the responsibility for war and the fate of the soldiers who die therein”; and lines 230-284, “Henry’s musings on kingship” (his only soliloquy in the play). Between these two sections are contained “a large number of biblical and liturgical references” (Shaheen, p. 449).

Because it is their feast day, he remembers the two noble brothers, Crispin and Crispian, who during the Roman persecution served as shoemakers yet were still martyred for their obvious Christianity; and they became an image for his men in battle:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition. (IV.iii.60-63)

9. “And it is also true that history plays like Henry V or Henry IV do seem to follow the schemata of saints’ lives and related forms: in the one case reproducing those aspects of sacred literature that O. B. Hardison terms “ritual form,” and in the other duplicating some of the features of the prodigal son stories” (Bloom, p. 87). Can you think of any saints that Henry V may have been modeled on, in whole or in part? Are there any aspects to the prodigal son story to be found in Henry V?


The Indomitable Imposter said...

Here are my questions: What is Harry's personal view of the Church? Obviously it is a powerful entity with which he must deal and interact politically, but based upon his Act IV speech on ceremony (which is mostly directed at himself)does he deem it to be anything more than wordly? It is a great motivator for his soldiers, but does he believe anything he's saying? What does his conversation with Williams contribute to this question? Does he actually believe what he is saying? Or is he at loss for real answers?

Ultimately, what does Harry's relationship with the church and his heavenly invocations juxstaposed with his politcal actions and decisions say about his own personal existential viewpoint?

Harry always seems to be playing the right part for the right audience, but rarely, if ever, do we see anything other than his political personas. Is there even anything behind those masks during the play? And if not was there ever?

Randall said...

Great questions. I think a few of them are answered by subsequent posts, most specifically from Gil on King Henry's use of invocations, and Derek on Henry's identity.

I was reading a critic the other day who argued that that it may be a mistake to assume that Renaissance writers thought about identity or "the self" the way that we do, that this idea of people wearing masks that shield or obscure an actual self is a modern view of character. In that sense, Henry plays no parts at all but himself.