Saturday, February 7, 2009

RE2: Henry V - The Consummate Politician

Gods and Goddesses,

I'm still thinking of the tension between Henry V as a classical epic hero or a Christian model, and I'm going to duck, for now Jim Bofenkamp's inquiries into Henry as a Christian model. One could settle this very early with Henry's declaration "We are no tyrant but a Christian king." But I would like to explore the context for this. The Archbishop and Ely have buried the Salique Law under a wonderful heap of obfuscation, worthy of a swarm of Yale post-modernists, so that Henry can say, if they insist, "now we are well resolv'd, and by God's help, and yours," therefore to France [italics mine]. Next, before the nobles, including his brother John, Duke of Bedford, he turns his attention to the attendant Ambassadors of France, with the preamble "Now are we well prepar'd to know the pleasure/ Of our fair cousin Dolphin" (I.ii.234-5).

(I only notice now the parallel "now are we well…" that focuses attention on the shift from "resolved" to "prepared," and I muse for the moment on how long he has actually prepared to sucker the Dolphin into the tennis-ball trap.)

The Ambassador (not at this point, unless one must double cast, the wonderful Montjoy of later negotiations) speaks ambassadorially,

"May't please your Majesty to give us leave
Freely to render what we have in charge?
Or shall we sparingly show you far off
The Dolphin's meaning and our embassy?"

How does one respond to such a question: may I speak truth or do you prefer lies? We get the assertion "We are no tyrant but a Christian king." Until this discussion, this never caught my attention much, though it is in keeping with the twenty-two subsequent appeals to the authority of God, reaching crescendo after Agincourt where it is "to [God']s arm alone,/ Ascribe we all," and not a word about sharpened staves and long bows, to which historians attribute the most overwhelming victory in battle in history.

I'm easy with Henry's statement. He is a Christian king, and this is the same formal rhetoric that a king uses, as we have seen in his father's rhetoric ("No more…") which opens 1 Henry IV. It also brackets the rather unChristian ridicule in the Dolphin's "tun of treasure" which provokes a response that concludes:
  • "We will in France, by God's grace, play a set/ Shall strike his father's crown into a hazard"
  • and "tell the pleasant prince this mock of his/ Hath turn'd his balls to gun-stones [how did Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy, miss this?] …But this lies all within the will of God"
  • and "We have now no thought in us but France,/ Save those to God"
  • and "for, God before,/ We'll chide this Dolphin at his father's door"
In addition to Christian and regal, he also articulates the ethical: in this court a delegate from the enemy can appear without fear of reprisal. Consider Transylvania's Vlad the Impaler, who beheaded an entire diplomatic delegation from Russia and displayed the heads on poles outside his castle.

Recall, though, for a moment, the most chilling moment in 2 Henry IV. Before the Forest of Gaultree, the rebel forces are gathered under the Archbishop of York, Lord Hastings, and Lord Mowbray, but they receive news that the Earl of Northumberland has called in sick. Then, the Earl of Westmorland arrives from John, the Duke of Lancaster, Henry IV's younger son, to demand an explanation for their rebellion and declares a period of truce during which Lancaster will hear their motives for rebellion. Over Mowbray's objections, York and Hastings send a schedule of grievances to Lancaster, such issues as greater access to the king. Lancaster promises to redress all their grievances if they will discharge their forces, and upon agreement, they drink to the subsequent peace. Subsequently, Hastings reports the rebel armies are dispersed, and instantly Lancaster's general, Lord Westmorland, replies

"Good tidings, my Lord Hastings! for the which
I do arrest thee, traitor, of high treason,
And you, Lord Archbishop, and you, Lord Mowbray,
Of capital treason I attach you both." (2 Henry IV, IV.ii.106-9).

"Is this proceeding just and honorable? … Will you thus break your faith?" ask the rebels.

"I pawn'd thee none.
I promis'd you redress of these same grievances
Whereof you did complain, which, by mine honor,
I will perform with a most Christian care.
But for you rebels, look to taste the due
Meet for rebellion…
God, and not we, hath safely fought today.
Some guard these traitors to the block of death" (IV.ii. 113…123).

I would need to trace the variations on "redress" here, but this is the supreme instance of double-talk in the histories. Notice John of Lancaster, claiming Christian care, reads into the record the grievances, yet immediately beheads the grievers. All your high-school students now say in unison: "cold!" When will we see John of Lancaster again? Right there in King Henry V's court, now John, Duke of Bedford, among the audience for "Christian" King Henry V dealing ethically, yet powerfully with the French ambassador, then at Southampton among the observers for what I have called the theatrical display of dooming the three traitors. Might we suspect that Prince John of Lancaster might be a more likely rival to Henry V than the now too aged Earl of Northumberland? But not after these two performances. Yet, as Derek notes, Henry is always, always in some situation. And when Derek is able to superimpose ceremony for "character," I think my understanding of Henry V has at last emerged, years after I first recited "And what have kings that privates have not too,/ Save ceremony, save general ceremony?"

I don't find Henry cynical or, unlike Prince John, cleverly brutal. When the French evoke God, it is in expletives: O Dieu vivant! Mort Dieu, ma vie! Dieu de batailles! And when Fluellen evokes God, it is with reverence: God be praised and blessed! or Ay, I praise God. I think Henry is a Christian king, yet almost all his humility before God is part of this fabric of public presentation. Only in his prayer, after the little touch of Harry in the night, is his relation to God untainted by any hint of cant: "O God of battles, steel my soldiers' hearts…Not today, O Lord/ O not to-day, think not upon the fault/ My father made in compassing the crown (IV.i.289, 292-4). This is unalloyed piety.

I must shog off,


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