Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part M

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.

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all.
... What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer'st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? what are thy comings in?
O ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy being fear'd
Than they in fearing.
What drink'st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,
But poison'd flattery? O, be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure!
Think'st thou the fiery fever will go out
With titles blown from adulation?
Will it give place to flexure and low bending?
Canst thou, when thou command'st the beggar's knee,
Command the health of it? No, thou proud dream,
That play'st so subtly with a king's repose;
I am a king that find thee, and I know
'Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running 'fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body fill'd and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm'd with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell,
But, like a lackey, from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus and all night
Sleeps in Elysium.
(Henry V 4.1.230-274)

In this soliloquy, the fact that it is Henry V speaking changes the mood of the passage, especially when he says, “Upon the King! let us our lives, our souls/Our debts, our careful wives/Our children, and our sins lay on the King!/We must bear all.” Because the King says this, it can be inferred that he is saying it with a somewhat ironic tone. He appears to be overwhelmed with his duties and laments his people thinking they should lay all of their burdens upon him. As the King, he has personal knowledge and experience with what he goes on to talk about and he uses sleep to show how his duties affect him: he is so tired by night that he doesn’t wake at all in the night.

The speech is perhaps motivated by Henry’s recently becoming King and becoming overwhelmed with all his duties. He is obviously in despair over the fact that he is no different from anyone else except for the ceremonies he has that come with the title of King, yet he has the burdens of his people thrust upon him. He mentions that he sleeps as well as a starving, exhausted slave due to all the work he must do as King. The novelty of being named King may have worn off at this point, and now the King just laments all the work he has to do and explains how he feels that all his citizens put all their needs in his hands.

He mentions all the perks people generally think that kings get, such as his "imperial crown" and gold and pearl "intertissued robe," and says that this is all just ceremony and that there are no real benefits. He uses this speech to complain about the position he has been given, even comparing himself to a slave. His use of mythology in the speech, mentioning Phoebus and Elysium, show that he is well educated but more importantly show the feeling that although King Henry V does not think the king gets any benefits, he does see that kings do have power and honor associated with their names. Perhaps this shows that his disapproval of the role of King is fleeting in the chaos of his first months on the throne, or that it does not truthfully represent what he believes. By implying that at night he sleeps in Elysium, King Henry V says that he is honorable. Either he believes this honor stems from his role of King, or from the work he has to do in supporting his people, although his earlier statements discount both of these ideas when he says that he is just like a commoner.

The King is still young at this point, so he probably does not know exactly what he believes and is impulsive in his thoughts and actions.

Rachel Kinney (SPA '12)


no sweat shakespeare said...

Hi there,

Great blog! Do you have a contact email/form anywhere on the site? Would love to talk about some sort of collaboration.


Randall said...

Thanks, Ed! We don't have an e-mail on the site, perhaps an oversight on my part. But you can easily track me down through St. Paul Academy (MN), where I work. My e-mail is available on their web site. I'd love to talk collaboration.

The Fantasy Coach said...

've heard a lecture series by a Prof. Saccio who used to teach at Dartmouth, and he hit on this speech heavily, but interpreted it through the larger context he saw between Shakespeare and his exploration of kingship. That Henry V, much like his father, was the kind of king who felt the weight of the job, saw through the ceremony of the position, opposed to enjoying the near limitless power like Richard II. Interesting to rethink it to the immediate context, and question between: is Henry down about feeling the weight of expectations, or is he making a general declaration about what his mind has realized his job as king is.