Sunday, March 06, 2005

Week 06 Shakespeare's Henry V

Shakespeare’s Henry V, Realism, and the Monarchy. Shakespeare is not is a "realist" in the nineteenth-century novelist's sense. Although he sometimes includes ordinary people and knaves of various kinds (like Falstaff and his tavern-going friends), he is mainly interested in the dynamics of social and political power. Analyzing the causes of disequilibrium in these areas of life is a mainstay in his plays. If you want to find out much about, say, everyday life in London, you must go to the historians or to a playwright such as Ben Jonson (Bartholomew Fair, for instance). Shakespeare lived and wrote his plays during the reigns of two powerful sovereigns, Elizabeth (last of the Tudor line) and James I (the first Stuart king). While Elizabeth was a master politician and contemporizer, James tended to lean on the developing doctrine that a monarch rules by “divine right,” and therefore ought to wield almost absolute power. When his son Charles I got hold of such ideas, he drove the country’s landed gentry and some of the nobility—along with lots of regular folks who didn’t like Charles’ semi-Catholic High Anglican policies—into open rebellion during the 1640’s. The result was Cromwell’s Interregnum rule in the 1650’s and then a return to a chastened Stuart Charles II and, at last, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 wherein William and Mary came in from the Low Countries, acknowledged the limitations of their sovereignty, and satisfied the nation’s firmly Protestant sensibilities. From that point onwards, there was no talk of royal absolutism, and even the larger-than-life Queen Victoria reigned rather than ruled through much of the nineteenth century.

Shakespeare’s ideal sovereign seems to have been Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603), who had a strong sense of prerogative but also evidently felt deep responsibility for the well-being of her subjects. Elizabeth knew how to play politics like a true Machiavellian operator. Her reign was marked by what today we would call a shrewd concern for “public relations”—that is, for managing the Queen’s image and keeping the various subsections of the populace as favorable as possible towards her policies. The “Cult of the Virgin Queen” gradually encouraged by Elizabeth’s officials and courtiers proved a successful means of maintaining order. (She never married, partly because that would have meant diminished power for herself and an increase in dominion for her Continental Catholic suitors.)

Henry V and Tudor Pride. But what about Henry V? Henry must have been high on the playwright’s list of proper kings, judging from the accolades he receives in the history play that bears his name. Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV after taking the crown from Richard II in 1399, was the son of the Duke of Lancaster, and so his son, upon ascending the throne in 1413 at the age of 26 as Henry V, continued the Lancastrian line. The fact that Henry V was a Lancastrian matters because the first Tudor King, Henry VII (who vanquished the Yorkist Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485), was himself head of that great house by his mother Margaret Beaufort. The Tudors, therefore, favor the Lancastrian side of English history, not the Yorkist side. It would be natural for Shakespeare (who in his history plays partly follows Raphael Holinshed’s Tudor-friendly Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland) to offer a flattering reconstruction of the Lancastrian Henry V, and I think that is pretty much what we get in the historical play Henry V.

Modern cultural materialist critics have offered a counter-reading that sees irony everywhere one looks in plays such as Henry V, but I am wary of such interpretations. Critics in any era recast their favorite author to suit their own ideological convictions—after all, every generation must reexamine the past to find out what is still valuable. It’s interesting to read The Tempest, for example, in part for what it has to say about how colonizing Europeans treat “others” like Caliban, and it’s worthwhile to read Othello for its engagement with early-modern European ideas about racial difference. I can sympathize with the excellent Regency period republican William Hazlitt when he criticizes Henry V for its willingness to applaud a king Hazlitt considers no better than a brute bent on imperial conquest. In a lecture, Hazlitt writes, “Henry, because he did not know how to govern his own kingdom, determined to make war upon his neighbours. Because his own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid claim to that of France.” That is a frank and authentic response to an attitude Hazlitt finds offensive in his countrymen. Still—and without meaning to sound like a naïve realist who thinks we can establish the one “true interpretation” about great events or literary texts—I believe critics ought to impose some limits on themselves when they work with centuries-old material. Claiming that Macbeth is practically a nihilist manifesto or that in Henry V Shakespeare is laughing up his ruffled sleeve at the principle of monarchy is unconvincing. Almost every line in the play tends in the opposite direction. It is hard to see how a man who headed up The King’s Players theater company for James I could possibly be anti-royalist in sentiment. No, I think Shakespeare is a believer in the Renaissance’s prime image of earthly order: the Great Chain of Being, wherein everything has its place and God sanctions the order of things. He is neither an anarchist nor a murmerer against the political order of Elizabeth Tudor or James Stuart. The human order draws its order from the providential order of God.

This is not to say that Shakespeare is a shameless mouthpiece for the powers that be. We can see from Henry V and other plays that he doesn’t support monarchy blindly—the strengths and weaknesses of his characters amount to something like a Mirror for Magistrates. He never tears the institution of kingship down, but in the end the advice Henry V himself gives in our play holds good: “the King is but a man.” And a “man,” in the view of Renaissance authors, is for the most part a collection of virtues and vices just like every other individual, high-born or not. There are plenty of vice-riddled or otherwise wrongheaded rulers in Shakespeare’s canon, and they never fare well. But this leads us to a consideration of Henry V as a character—romantic poets such as Coleridge, in his Lectures on Shakespeare, have written with much acumen about the way in which many of this playwright’s characters manage to be both strong individuals and yet representatives of a whole class of people. Coleridge says famously of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, “The character of the Nurse is the nearest of any thing in Shakespeare to a direct borrowing from mere observation; and the reason is, that as in infancy and childhood the individual in nature is a representative of a class, just as in describing one larch tree, you generalize a grove of them,--so it is nearly as much so in old age.”

This is an insightful statement—Coleridge seems to be suggesting that there is something generic about the Nurse’s eccentric behavior as an individual—she is an uneducated but good-hearted old woman, and all such people show similar tendencies in their speech and conduct. Coleridge has much to say in romantic fashion about how the “genius” of Shakespeare cannot be bound by external conventions about dramatic structure or the representation of character, but rather drives him to let his plays unfold and his characters develop according to the supposed inner laws of their nature—just as an acorn, to use the organic metaphor, must grow into an oak and nothing else. I have always like that romantic way of describing Shakespeare’s process, but my point here is that Henry V is the very type of a good king. He achieves this paradigmatic status not because Shakespeare is following some wooden rulebook on “how to be a great king” but rather because, over the course of no fewer than three plays (I and II Henry IV plus Henry V), he allows Prince Hal to transform himself from a rascal into a sovereign of iron will and implacable virtue, the burden of which is at times lightened by the sense of humor that comes from being kicked around by life enough to acknowledge one’s own limitations—amongst them spiritual error and mortality.

All the World’s a Stage. What is Hal’s method for learning as much as he does? It is that of an actor—Prince Henry play-acts and workshops his way to glory, interacting with all manner of citizens from the common tavern to battlefields full of fiery nobility. His is not so much a romantic, unique, nameless, intimate self but is rather the product of trying out many different stations and styles on his way to appreciating his one true “office”—that medieval, relational term for defining a person by his or her role in life, entailing as it does certain responsibilities within the political and social order. If you’re going to be a king, you have to understand, in Shakespeare’s terms, that it is to play a role on the “stage” of life. That such a role means taking on grave burdens and enduring potentially harsh consequences in no way makes it less a role than if the person were simply strutting across the theatrical boards.

In I Henry IV, Hal’s father Henry IV at times shows disgust for his son’s prodigal ways. Hanging out with hard-drinking highwaymen like Sir John Falstaff and his friends, thinks the King, can lead to no good and violates the “public relations” principle that a great prince is more prized by making himself scarce than by mingling with low company. What the father doesn’t quite understand is that this “mingling” is Hal’s way of getting to know his subjects, the better to govern them. So in I Henry IV, Prince Hal tries out various roles, learning how the various subjects in his future kingdom think and live. In Act 1.2, Hal himself describes his antics in providential terms: “My reformation, glitt'ring o'er my fault, / Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off. / I'll so offend to make offence a skill, Redeeming time when men think least I will.” In other words, kingly virtue was always Hal’s redemptive final goal, whatever capers he may commit on his way to the throne. That may or may not have been true of the real Henry, but it seems true of Shakespeare’s character, who goes from “Hal” to the ultimate warrior-king Henry V, October 1415’s victor at Agincourt against an imposing French army.

Even when he becomes king and is about to undertake the greatest battle of his life at Agincourt, Henry V remains an actor and a learner. His groundedness and view of the big picture in morals and politics shows in the following prose exchange in Act 4, Scene 1 between the disguised King and one of his humbler subjects, Williams:
Williams. 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.

Henry. [T]he King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death when they purpose their services…. Every subject's duty is the King's; but every subject's soul is his own.
To a thorough philosophical materialist, this exchange would be pointless because both parties speak of “end things”; they speak of death and eternal judgment following the Resurrection of the Dead. But since they both accept this religious view of life, it’s easy to see whose argument is the better in such a context: the soul is more than the body, so the King can send his subjects off to fight in a foreign war without being held responsible for their physical demise, even if the cause should turn out to be unworthy. He neither wants them to be killed nor can answer for the state of their souls at the point of death—that is something only they can answer for. The point is that Henry can relate to his subjects at their own level, yet he retains the superior perspective of a man operating on a higher plane of experience and understanding. As Henry comes into his own, it becomes clear that his playful past has imbued him with the medieval and Renaissance truth that the king has not one body, but two—a natural body that desires, breathes, and dies, and a body political whose boundaries go well beyond the personal and the physical. The King is in part a walking “office” or set of duties, and this transpersonal aspect of him is what promises political continuity as well as (to borrow Thomas More’s term in Utopia) the “majesty” that comes with respect for whatever is larger than material affairs and ordinary humanity. (On the development of this theory, see Ernest Kantorowicz’s classic 1959 book, The King’s Two Bodies: a Study in Medieval Political Theology.)

Words, Words, Words. I like Russ McDonald’s Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, and his introduction to Elizabethan/Jacobean rhetoric in particular. McDonald’s main advice is that in order to enjoy Shakespeare, we need to be patient with what seems to our modern, journalistic sensibilities overly verbose passages and drawn-out figures of speech. We apply the idea that “brevity’s the soul of wit” to just about every kind of writing and speaking, so it can be disconcerting when Romeo’s friend Benvolio describes the predawn period as “an hour before the worshipp'd sun / Peer'd forth the golden window of the East.” The French historian Guizot said that Shakespeare tried every style except simplicity, but it’s fair to add that the most verbose statements in Shakespeare’s plays usually go to the silliest characters. Dogberry in Much Ado about Nothing and Polonius in Hamlet are fine examples.

On a more serious level, the key question to ask about seemingly “verbose” figures and long sentences in Shakespeare is, “are the words oriented towards action, or towards further rhetoric?” Henry V, for instance, gets many full speeches both in soliloquy and in dialogue with others, some of them rather exuberant. But because his words always appear to be spoken to some useful and necessary end—like plucking up his men’s courage just before a battle, or inwardly hashing out a difficult matter in monarch-theory or a point of conscience (4.1 “think not upon the fault / My father made in compassing the crown! / I Richard's body have interred new…”), they pass the “blowhard” test. An example would be Act 3, scene 3’s longish harangue of the citizens of Harfleur—Henry seems to be revel at length in the horrors his men will inflict on the defenseless town, but his purpose is blunt and (arguably) even humane, as the concluding rhymed couplet of his speech makes clear: “What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid? / Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroy'd?” Henry is a talker, but he’s much more than that—he is a doer whose words suit his purposes and his actions. Similarly, Captain Fluellen is loquacious, has a comic Welsh accent, and even ends up talking sometimes while others are fighting. Even so, his vehemence (“look you, now”—“in your conscience”!) is as honorable as Henry’s occasional exuberance—Fluellen speaks as he does from an excess of uprightness and national pride, not from any unworthy motives, and his overfondness for “discoursing of the wars” stems from admirable erudition in military history.

Contrast Henry’s performance as a speaker with the Dauphin (the Crown Prince of France)—he is eager to defend his country, we quickly intuit, but his bravado and metaphorical flights are not grounded in prior experience. When he compares his horse to Pegasus—“ha! he bounds from the earth as if his entrails were hairs; le cheval volant, the Pegasus, chez les narines de feu! When I bestride him I soar, I am a hawk. He trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes”—the Constable quick tries to bring him back to earth: “Indeed, my lord, it is a most absolute and excellent horse.” A horse, that is, and nothing more. As the conversation proceeds, it becomes clear that the Dauphin’s older advisors have heard this nonsense before, and hold it in contempt. The man is a fine talker, but his career as a doer, while honorable, will be cut tragically short by Henry’s “band of brothers.”

Finally on the subject of linguistic styles, the matter is far more complex than I can do justice to here. We aren’t always dealing with straightforward contrasts indicating either perfect virtue or absolute vice. Even Plump Jack Falstaff, in the Henry IV plays, with his windy rhetoric and bad morals, has something of value about him—he’s a slippery, virtuoso rogue even if not a virtuous man, and he teaches the Prince a thing or two about what makes men such as himself tick. There are almost as many unflattering affinities as stark differences between the rascals and the royalty in the Henry IV-V trilogy. This is part of what Samuel Johnson, in his Preface to Shakespeare, warily acknowledges as the playwright’s genius—he is true to the complexities of character and life’s events, sometimes to the point of surrendering the uplifting moral for love of the tale that rings true to human nature. In 5.1 the lowly Pistol laments, “Old I do wax; and from my weary limbs / Honour is cudgell'd. Well, bawd I'll turn, / And something lean to cutpurse of quick hand. / To England will I steal, and there I'll steal….” The statement has a certain eloquence to it, and the pun on “steal” reinforces the pathos of this unheroic character’s probable future: King Henry said everyone who came back from the war in France would be remembered eternally, but that’s clearly not true for a man like Pistol—with no honorable role to play back home, he’s sure to meet some ignominious fate.