Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part L

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulting from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs, and arms, and heads, chopp'd off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, "We died at such a place" -- some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it.
(Henry V 4.1.134-145)

Williams' speech, in Henry V, illustrates both the violent nature of war and the human cost of honor. Williams outright states, "If the cause be not good, then the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make." The issue of tactics and strategy -- good or bad -- in the fighting does not come up. Rather, the issue stands on whether or not the reason for fighting was at all sound. It brings to mind the Chinese idea of the Mandate of Heaven, or the divine right of kingship. The king remains in the right only if the heavenly powers favor him.

However, in the case of 1 Henry IV, honor comes into play where divine favor might have in another story. Is the king right in taking his cause to the battlefield? If he is not, then his soldiers will have died in vain and the king will have to pay "a heavy reckoning," making everything right again in the eyes of heaven and his troops alike.

Williams also uses the image of severed body parts -- arms, legs, and heads -- all crying out that they were killed, but not the wounded soldiers themselves. In death, the common soldiers are reduced to the sum of their injuries -- their body parts. No longer alive, they become meat in the eyes of the survivors and the king. The parts shall "join together at a later day" to state the way they died and what they left behind. And if it is an unjust way to die, then they will haunt the king. Unjust deaths tend to do that in Shakespeare. Consider Hamlet and Macbeth. The ghosts of unjustly killed men tend to stick around and taunt those responsible, or give advice to those who can arrange the downfall of the responsible party.

"I am afeard that there are few die well that die in battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument?" Williams asks, exposing the realistic side to the play's romantic notion of fighting. Though a common soldier himself, Williams does a bit of philosophical musing over whether or not the soldiers who died in the fighting actually died a "good" -- or just -- death, for they have little to bargain with when heaven comes rolling around, only blood, both theirs and some belonging to others spilled by their hands. Their "argument" is their ticket into heaven and while a loyal soldier may be willing to go downstairs for the sake of fighting for his king's good cause -- murder being against the Ten Commandments and what not -- the same cannot be said if the king's cause is not just. No one wants to be told that they fought for a bad cause. Soldiers cannot "charitably dispose of anything" with their hands so dirtied. They cannot say they are innocent upon reaching the afterlife, whatever form it happens to take. The dead ones had families, wives and children in some cases, and those survivors will be left alone. Hopefully it was for a good cause.

The last part of the speech wraps up and reinforces the message nicely: "Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it." Williams' speech is not confusing. The meaning does not disguise itself with fancy language, only violent imagery, perhaps a testimony to Williams' standing as a common soldier and not a member of the nobility as Hal is.

Emma Johnson-Rivard (SPA '11)

No comments: