By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: At a peace conference in France, the two sides negotiate terms – one of which is a marriage between Henry and Catherine. Henry privately courts and woos here and she relents, at which peace is concluded and their marriage agreed. All seems resolved, but the Chorus warns (and rightfully so) that it won’t remain so for long – the reign of Henry’s son (Henry VI) will bring only sorrow (as we all read) for England.
All Elizabethan comedies end with marriage (as do most screwball comedies of the 1930s), and Henry V, though a history play, is no exception. But the alliance between Henry and Catherine of Valois, frequently performed as a light-hearted coda to the English victory at Agincourt (see Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson), is not without problems – or affected by some of the other questions raised by the play. As the English and French diplomats meet in order to thrash out how to guarantee what Burgundy calls “gentle peace” for France, Henry insists that they must “buy that peace;” part of his ransom (“our capital demand”) is the French princess. But she will not be bought all that easily – first reacting with what seems like disgust to the praise he heaps on her head, then recoiling from his mastery as the conqueror of her land. “Is it possible dad I could love de ennemi of France?” she enquires to which Henry’s answer is almost shockingly blunt:
Henry: No, it is not possible that you should love the enemy of France, Kate. But in loving me, you should love the friend of France, for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it, I will have it all mine; and Kate, when France is mine, and I am yours, then yours is France, and you are mine.
Catherine: I cannot tell vat is dat.
Catherine’s baffled incomprehension, though Shakespeare makes it linguistic, might echo our own. Henry’s casual intermingling of the language of love with that of military conquest could be a gruff soldier’s attempt to speak well – he claims it is – but from a King as linguistically agile and virtuosic as Henry, that doesn’t have the ring of truth about it. It is hard to believe that it is an accident that his choice of words echoes Richard II’s resignation speech (“Your own is yours, and I am yours, and all”, and probably not that it foreshadows the marriage proposal offered to Isabella by the Duke in Measure for Measure. Henry’s status as the owner of France is above all his main concern here; h e is intent on implementing his own particular version of droit du seigneur (right of the lord).
Given that this scene is so delicately balanced between comedy and something darker, it offers a thought-provoking conclusion to a drama that continually asks its audiences to consider what kind of play it really is. The Chorus’s appearances at the beginning of each act, inviting us to “entertain conjecture,” remind us of Shakespeare’s stagecraft, but they also draw attention to the ways in which we are co-opted into events beyond our control. Henry may exclaim at Agincourt that those not present “shall think themselves accursed that they were not here” but, Shakespeare asks, do we ultimately feel the same say?”
And to conclude from Harold Goddard, whose reading of the play I find particularly insightful – moving on from where we left off last time, “If Shakespeare had deliberately set out to deglorify the Battle of Agincourt in general and King Henry in particular it would seem as if he could hardly done more”
“But, it may be asked, how about this passage:
You may imagine him upon Blackheath,
Where that his lords desire him to have borne
His bruised helmet and his bended sword
Before him through the city. He forbids it
Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride;
Giving full trophy, signal and ostent
Quite from himself to God.
That is from the Chorus of the fifth act. If what the Chorus says ‘you may imagine’ is to be accepted as fact, Henry is once for all the Mirror of Humility of all Christian Kings, and that ends it. But if, when the Chorus and the play contradict each other, the text of the latter should be arbiter, the conclusion may be a different one. ‘You may imagine him,’ if you will, dealing and receiving blows from the beginning to the end of the battle, but you will be put to it to find in the text the scene in which he bruised his helmet and bent his sword. Indeed, the whole account comes closer to giving the impression that the King saw the battle from a vantage point than that he mixed in the fighting. The Duke of York led the van and perished with the Earl of Suffolk. ‘Thrice within this hour,’ says Henry when Exeter comes to announce York’s death,
I saw him down; thrice up again, and was fighting.
From helmet to the spur all blood he was.
History too may have been covered with blood (though he plainly had leisure enough to observe what was going on), yet in spite of his ‘he to-day that sheds his blood with me,’ he came through, for anything the text says to the contrary, without a scratch.
The evidence for all this, it is true, is negative. It lies in what is omitted. But is it not strange that the text should not be explicit on this point, that it should permit us for a moment to entertain such thoughts concerning this supreme hour of the hero-king? No one, of course, can question the valor of the man who killed Hotspur. What anyone can question – and, it seems to me, must question – is whether Henry at Agincourt is the man who killed Hotspur. There is much to indicate that Shakespeare deliberately created a detailed contrast between Henry’s conduct at Shrewsbury and his conduct at Agincourt.
At Shrewsbury we hear his father begging Henry to withdraw from the battle because of his loss of blood. He refuses:
God forbid a shallow scratch should drive
The Prince of Wales from such a field as this.
A little later the King is attacked by Douglas. His son comes to his rescue and Douglas flees. Scarcely has he had time to catch his breath when Hotspur enters. They fight and Hotspur falls. After the battle the Prince begs of his father the disposition of Douglas, who has been captured. It is granted and he gives Douglas his freedom. All this prowess and personal courage is conspicuous by its absence at Agincourt, except in so far as we choose to imagine it. Henry, for instance, makes no move to come to the rescue of York, though three times he sees him sorely beset, as he did to the rescue of his father. And if it be objected that Henry is now king and in command, there are too many Macbeths and Coriolanuses in Shakespeare to make that an acceptable explanation.
Does the poet offer any reason why Henry should have been less heroic at Agincourt than at Shrewsbury? He does.
More and more since his accession, we have seen Henry growing like his father. What was Henry IV’s part in the Battle of Shrewsbury? No very glorious one, as those counterfeit kings made clear. Indeed, Henry would undoubtedly have been slain by Douglas, had not his son intervened at the critical moment. The elder Henry was no poltroon. Why was he not more valiant? Because his conscience was troubling him. So was his son’s conscience on this later occasion, as his prayer before the battle shows. There is much to suggest that the son’s inner state at Agincourt may have been closer to that of his father at Shrewsbury than we would ever have supposed, had we not seen him in disguise and heard him in soliloquy and prayer the evening before the battle. Henry V sent no counterfeit kings into the fray, but he confessed to God that he was little better than a counterfeit king himself:
all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all.
His statement about himself on his accession has come true in a sense he did not anticipate:
My father is gone wild into his grave…
And with his spirit sadly I survive.
The contrast between Shrewsbury and Agincourt has interest beyond the character of Henry. Shrewsbury was still a feudal battle. Agincourt, as we have already noted, was the first victory of massed yeomen over knights and so registers the end of feudal war. We are dealing, however, not with the battle itself but with Shakespeare’s account of it, and he puts no stress on the unarmored archers with their longbows to whom the victory has generally been attributed. The poet was plainly more interested in the moral than in the military aspects of the battle…
The Chorus of the fifth act likens the celebration after Agincourt to an imperial triumph in ancient Rome and to an imaginary welcome in London of the Earl of Essex after a hypothetical suppression of the Irish rebellion. These dubious references to imperialism, Roman and Elizabethan, stress once more the distinction that must be drawn between the Chorus and the poet. In the light of the consistently disparaging allusions to Caesar throughout Shakespeare’s works, the implied comparison of Essex to a ‘conquering Caesar’ defines plainly enough what Shakespeare conceived to be the relation of his play to the events of his own day.
But, even without this, the cumulative testimony to what Shakespeare thought of Henry V’s French conquest is utterly crushing. The irony of his rejecting Falstaff with his petty robberies only to embrace the shade of his father with his stolen crown and his advice to commit mightier thefts; the shaky character of his title to the throne of France, his unwillingness to understand that title, and his insistence that it be underwritten by the church; the passion into which he was sent by those innocent symbols of his youth, the tennis balls; his acceptance of church property to carry on his war, coupled with his swift dispatch of Bardolph to death for stealing from a church; his democratic protestations before the battle along with his quick consignment of them to oblivion after the victory; the continual juxtaposition of his boastfulness and Pistol’s; his confession the night before Agincourt that even his own throne was not his own; the little loot of the underworld and the huge conquest of the King: all of these things, and others, confirm the fact that had turned his back on the wildness of his youth only to confirm it on a grand scale in the anarchy of war. No one but a person very ignorant of the mathematics of chance could attribute to coincidence the agreement of so many details. ‘Who, I rob? I a thief? Not I, by my faith,’ cries Hal when the Gadshill escapade is first proposed. To which Falstaff replied that the Prince comes ‘not of blood royal’ if he cannot steal. ‘Well, then,’ Hal relents, ‘once in my days I’ll be a madcap.’ Did cap ever fit better than this madcap fitted the future? What wonder that the future put it on! What it all adds up to is that the Battle of Agincourt was the royal equivalent of the Gadshill robbery. If Shakespeare did not mean it, it means itself.
The analogy between imperialism and highway robbery is no invention of modern radicals. It is probably as old as the organization of men into predatory groups. ‘You know as well as we do,’ Thucydides makes the cynical Athenians say to the helpless Melians on the eve of the former’s piratical conquest of their little isle, ‘you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’
He looks upon the mightiest monarchs’ wars
But only as on stately robberies,
says Samuel Daniel, Shakespeare’s contemporary. ‘Justice is as strictly due between neighbor nations as between neighbor citizens,’ says Benjamin Franklin; ‘a highwayman is as much a robber when he plunders in a gang as when single; and a nation that makes an unjust war is only a great gang.’ A comparison common to the ages could not have escaped a mind as acute as Shakespeare’s. That it did not, Hamlet’s one phrase, ‘a cutpurse of the empire,’ is enough to prove. And in plays like Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens the poet says right out what he says more or less under cover in Henry V. ‘Shall the son of England prove a thief and take purses? a question to be asked,’ says Falstaff impersonating Henry IV in the tavern. ‘Shall the King of England prove a thief and take kingdoms?’ A question both asked and answered by Shakespeare in Henry V.
If this play, with its historical predecessors, is not enough to show what Shakespeare thought of imperialism, there are the four more on the reigns of Henry VI and Richard III in which we have already studied its fruits, for, as we have seen, it may well have been the disorder of the later fifteenth century that first sent Shakespeare in search of the causes of such chaos. And if all this is not enough, there is a later and greater masterpiece on the subject which is like all eight of these plays telescoped into one, and a still later one in which the theme is finally gathered up in the form of a parable. When Henry ‘embraced’ the Chief Justice as his father, rejected Falstaff, and embarked on his conquest of France, it was not a new leaf, but the oldest of leaves, that he turned over.
After the Battle of Agincourt, the fifth act of Henry V strikes one at first reading as the worst anticlimax in any of Shakespeare’s greater plays. The poet, it is pretty generally agreed, ran out of matter, and the act has been put down as more of an epilogue than anything else – a sort of tailpiece. But we had better be on guard. Supreme poets, when approaching the crest of their power, are not in the habit of attaching tailpieces to masterpieces.
Following the Chorus, with its reference to Essex, we see Pistol in the first scene, after having sworn by Cadwallader and all his goats that he will not do it, compelled by Fluellen to eat a leek. Fluellen offers him a groat to square the injury, and, when Pistol hesitates, tells him he has another leek in his pocket, whereat Pistol complies:
I take thy groat in earnest of revenge,
but when his tormentor is gone he swears, ‘All hell shall stir for this.’ And our last glimpse of the unholy braggart-in-blank-verse reveals him setting out for England to embark on one of those criminal careers that is one of the curses of wars in all ages to leave in its wake. The Immoral Falstaff and Henry’s ‘Gallia wars’ have between them given Pistol the education and the opportunity for his future vocation as bawd and cutpurse.
We pass to the palace in Troyes and behold the two Kings, French and English, embracing like brothers just as if nothing had happened. In this last scene of King Henry V, if anywhere in Shakespeare, we are introduced to that Ceremony which was the subject of Henry’s soliloquy the night before Agincourt. There we heard what he thought about it. Here we see what he does about it. Indeed this scene is so smothered in ceremony that only by disregarding the words and concentrating on the deeds can we get any notion of what is really happening. What does happen, to call a spade a spade, is this: one king compels another to eat a leek (or two leeks, if you will). The administration of the dose is so disguised by sentiment and diplomacy, so sugared over with protestations of ‘love’ and exchanges of ‘brother France’ and ‘brother England,’ that the leek to all appearances might have been a piece of wedding cake. But leek it is, nevertheless. And we remember Pistol’s ‘All hell shall stir for this,’ and wonder if it shall.
In high contrast with all the palaver of the Kings and the Queen, one speech stands out: the Duke of Burgundy’s on peace. It is sincere, profound, and imaginative, a touchstone by which to try everything that is said and done in the play. In Richard II, a well-weeded and well-tended garden was the metaphor for peace. Burgundy uses the same figure. He draws a picture of France, ‘this best garden of the world,’ from which Peace has been too long expelled: her unpruned vines, overgrown hedges, rusty plows, meadows that were formerly covered with sweet clover where now
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility;
And as our vineyards, fallows, meads, and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country,
But grow like savages, — as soldiers will
That nothing do but meditate on blood, —
To swearing and stern looks, diffus’d attire,
And everything that seems unnatural.
And he asks the two Kings what there is to prevent the restoration of peace with all her blessings.
If you want all those blessings, Duke of Burgundy, Henry replies,
you must buy that peace
With full accord to all our just demands;
Whose tenours and particular effects
You have enschedul’d briefly in your hands.
Under the ceremony there is no nonsense about Henry. If peace is a garden to Burgundy, it is a commodity to be bought to the King. The language of horticulture – and the language of the market place. So, while his uncle Exeter, his brothers, and other lords go out to discuss with the French King and Queen the terms under which peace can be bought, Henry turns to the ‘wooing of Katharine’ – it it may be called wooing when the lover has demanded the lady from her father as a condition of settlement:
Yet leave our cousin Katharine here with us:
She is our capital demand, compris’d
Within the fore-rank of our articles.
It is a bit frank to refer to Kate in her own presence as a ‘capital demand.’ But the remark may have been intended only for her father’s ear, and, when Kate and the King are left alone, under the influence of gentler feelings the original Hal, we hope, may come to the surface as he did once before under the cover of night.
The Court retires, only Alice, lady-in-waiting to Kate, who, as interpreter and chaperone, is a necessary party to the tête-à-tête, remaining, and the scene that follows, with its wit and its queer mixture of halting French and lame English, is indeed delightful. But love! Shade of Romeo, no! Not a spark of it, not a trace. And Romeo’s ghost is the right one to invoke, for this is a case, like his, of an alliance that crosses the battle lines. ‘The quality least present in love,’ says Stendhal, ‘is gallantry.’ This interview between Henry and Kate might have been written to prove the truth of the maxim. It is right here that Shakespeare achieves unity between the two themes of the act, diplomacy and courtship, for just as gallantry is the ceremony of ‘love’ so is ceremony the gallantry of politics.
All the zest of love-making rests in the uncertainty of the result, but in this case the result is a foregone conclusion. Yet Henry goes through the motions of pretending that this fat is in the lady’s hands. He begins by calling her an angel. To which she replies, ‘O bon Dieu! les langues des homes sont pleines des tromperies,’ or, as rendered by Alice into English, ‘de tongues of de mans is to be full of deceits.’
Henry is glad her English is imperfect. Otherwise, he fears, ‘thou wouldst find me such a plain king that thou wouldst think I had sold my farm to buy my crown.’ But the swashbuckling way in which he goes at it does not sound at all like a farmer’s mode of making love:
‘If I could win a lady at leap-frog, or by vaulting into my saddle with my armour on my back, under the correction of bragging be it spoken, I should quickly leap into a wife. Or if I might buffet for my love, or bound my horse for her favours, I could lay on like a butcher and sit like a jack-an-apes, never off.’
It does sound like a butchering of love.
‘These fellow of infinite tongue, that can rhyme themselves into ladies’ favours, they do always reason themselves out again.’ We remember Orlando’s rhymes to Rosalind on the trees of the forest of Arden, and wonder.
Henry pretends to none of the qualities of a lover but plain-spokenness, constancy, and a good heart. ‘A good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon.’ The moon is an ominous addition to the metaphor of his youth. Henry’s figures of speech, as we have seen, are forever betraying him, but for once he perceives his slip in time to correct it; ‘or rather the sun and not the moon; for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps his course truly. If thou would have such a one, take me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king. And what sayest thou then to my love? speak, my fair, and fairly, I pray thee.’ (The awkward repetitions in those last two sentences reminds us of nobody in the world so much as Shallow! Do his inadvertent allusion to the moon and his assertion that he, like the sun, has kept his course truly, cause Henry a moment of unconscious embarrassment?)
‘Is it possible dat I should love de enemy of France?’ Kate comes back at him very pertinently.
‘No, it is not possible you should love the enemy of France, Kate; but, in loving me, you should love the friend of France; for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it, I will have it all mine; and, Kate, when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine.’
‘I cannot tell vat is dat,’ Kate interjects. And neither can we, except that it is closer to a rapacity for land than it is to the love of woman.
Henry tries it over again in French, but with no better success, so he takes another tack: that of appealing to her maternal instinct. ‘I love thee cruelly, ‘he protests, letting slip a Janus-faced adjective. ‘Iv ever thou beest mine, Kate, as I have a saving faith within me tell me thou shalt, I get thee with scrambling, and thou must therefore needs prove a good soldier-breeder. Shalt not thou and I, between Saint Denis and Saint George, compound a boy, half French, half English, that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by his beard? Shall we not? What say’s thou, my fair flower-de luce?’ Imagine Shakespeare’s genuine warrior-lover, Othello, speaking to Desdemona in that vein!
And who was this boy that, his father hopes, is to make his grandfather’s crusade to the East and take the Turk by the beard? The sainted Henry VI!
‘I do not know dat,’ says Kate.
So Henry falls back on calling her goddess and divine…To which she wittily retorts: ‘Your Majeste ave fausse French enough to deceive de most sage demoiselle dat is en France.’
‘Now, bestow my father’s ambition!’ cries Henry, disgusted at his lack of progress with the lady, ‘he was thinking of civil wars when he got me; therefore was I created with a stubborn outside, with an aspect of iron, that, when I come to woo ladies, I fright them.’ So throwing England, Ireland and France into the scale with himself, he asks directly: ‘Wilt thou have me?’
“Dat is as it sall please de roi mon pere.’ The father shall decide.
‘Nay, it will please him well, Kate,’ and knowing that the father really has no choice in the matter, he cannot resist adding, ‘It shall please him, Kate.’ Henry may know little about love, but he understands the distinction between shall and will.
‘Den it sall also content me.’
The conquest is over.
This is Henry’s second Agincourt and it throws as much light on the first one as anything in the play. They are both overwhelming victories won by force (actual and potential) in the face of odds not nearly as great as they appeared. They both turn, in different senses, on the will of the father. Their ultimate fruits are respectively (1) the loss of France by England, and (2) King Henry VI: both, for England, blessings in disguise. And the second helped, negatively, to bring about the first. If this scene is a ‘tailpiece,’ it is at least a prophetic one.
The French King returns and Henry asks for the sake of form: ‘Shall Kate be my wife?’
‘So please you,’ says Kate’s father, knowing where the compulsion lies.
‘I am content,’ says Henry, not forgetting the bride’s dowry, ‘so the maiden cities you talk of may wait on her.’
This is also agreeable to King Charles. Nor does he deny Henry’s new title of King of England and Inheritor of France. It is all in the family now, and Kate’s father expresses his faith that ‘this dear conjunction’ may plant
In their sweet bosoms, that never war advance
His bleeding sword ‘twist England and fair France,
a wish over which the figure of Joan of Arc, awaiting her cue, casts a certain shadow. And Queen Isabel outdoes her husband. She compares the union of the two kingdoms to a marriage of man and wife, which, she hopes, unlike human marriage, will never know divorce. This touch clinches the unity underlying the politics and the love-making of the fifth act of the play and proves again that it is far more than epilogue.
Henry, however, is thinking of the immediate, not the distant, future, and in spite of all the flow of sentiment he sees that everything is done in binding legal shape:
My Lord of Burgundy, we’ll take your oath,
And all the peers’, for surety of our leagues.
Then shall I swear to Kate, and you to me;
And may our oaths well kept and prosperous be!
With which characteristic last line ‘this star of England,’ who has figured in four plays, disappears forever – except as a corpse at his own funeral and in the possible good and the certain evil that lived after him – from Shakespeare’s dramatic firmament.
But not from Shakespeare’s imagination.
If the events of this play be taken at face value, if Henry is accepted at his own estimate, or if we go even further and believe with the Chorus that he is the mirror of all Christian kings, or with the majority of critics that he is Shakespeare’s portrait of the ideal king, then there is no contesting the view that the play is epic and lyrical rather than dramatic. There is in that case none of that disparity between inner and outer upon which all poetic drama depends for its effect. But grant that Henry is the golden casket of The Merchant of Venice, fairer to a superficial view than to a more searching perception, and instantly the play becomes pervaded with an irony that imparts intense dramatic value to practically every one of its major scenes: the interview with the Bishops, the tennis-ball incident, the entrapping of the traitors, the ‘tiger’ speech and the one before Harfleur, the rejection of Bardolph, the Haroun-al-Raschid scene before the battle with the soliloquy and prayer that follow it, the ‘we few, we happy few’ address to the King’s little ‘band of brothers,’ the battle itself with its echo of the rejection of Falstaff and the killing of the prisoners, the second encounter with Williams, the giving of the victory to God, and, finally, the making of ‘peace’ and the ‘wooing’ of Kate. It is all woven into a web of high psychological, political, symbolical, and (if so much be granted) dramatic value. And this does not take into account the ‘comic relief’ which is enough in itself, with its oblique comments on the main plot, to relieve the play of the charge of being undramatic. If this play is undramatic, Hamlet itself, one is tempted to say, is undramatic. The difference is that Hamlet is at least partly conscious of psychological events which in Henry, except on rare occasions, take place below the threshold of apprehension. Whether Henry V is theatrical as well as dramatic is another question the answer to which will depend on the acting and the audience at a particular performance. It has been said that no actor can fail as Hamlet. Any actor can fail as Henry.
‘It is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so,’ says Machiavelli, prescribing right conduct to the ideal ruler in The Prince, ‘but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities…A prince must take great care that nothing goes out of his mouth which is not full of the above-named five qualities, and, to see and hear him, he should seem to be all mercy, faith, integrity, humanity, and religion. And nothing is more necessary than to seem to have this last quality, for men in general judge more by the eyes than by the hands, for every one can see, but very few have [power] to feel. Everybody sees what you appear to be, few feel what you are.’
Not maliciously and in cold blood but against the grain of his own nature and by insensible degrees, the man who began as Hal and ended as Henry V made himself into something that comes too close for comfort to Machiavelli’s ideal prince. ‘They why did not Shakespeare make it plain?’ those will exclaim who hold that at any sacrifice everything must be clear in the theater. (That everything must seem to be clear may be readily granted.) But how, will they tell us, could Shakespeare draw a character whose first requisite is that he shall appear to be the opposite of what he is except by drawing a character who appears to be the opposite of what he is? ‘If Machiavelli had a prince for disciple,’ wrote Voltaire in his Memoirs, ‘the first thing he would have recommended him to do would have been to write a book against Machiavellism.’ Samuel Butler has demonstrated in convincing detail that no art or mental process is perfect until it becomes unconscious. The perfect thief is the kleptomaniac, who steals as it were automatically. In that sense Henry V was possibly the perfect Machiavellian prince. In that sense Richard III was a mere bungler; he was still conscious of his evil.
Seldom has a conquest become to crumble more immediately than did Henry’s. Hardly is his body cold in death (if we may glance again at Henry VI) when losses across the Channel are reported. Successive messengers interrupt his funeral procession to tell of cities retaken by the enemy, the crowning of the Dauphin, the defeat of Talbot, the cowardice of Sir John Falstolfe. It is as with the departure of the King’s spirit from his body that the extremities of his kingdom begin to grow cold and to shrink. And not just the extremities. Dissension at home between church and state, rivalries of the nobles, street fighting between retainers, show what a counterfeit is the ‘unity’ that emerges in time of war, what a forgery the ‘order’ imposed by a ‘strong’ man. Much has been made, based mainly on a famous speech in Troilus and Cressida, of Shakespeare’s love of unity and order. It was harmony and peace, not unity and order, that Shakespeare loved. The feudal system had said and done what it could for an organization of human life founded on an analogy with the solar system, with the king, like the sun, at the center and nobles around him, like the planets, revolving in fixed orbits. Richard II and Henry V, with their perpetual likening of themselves to the sun, are relics of this system. The anarchy of the fifteenth century is compensation for the order of Henry IV and Henry V, the inevitable ebb of the tide before the emergence of Richard III. Shakespeare evidently detected very early the resemblance between anarchy and order, realizing that the two are merely extremes that meet. Anarchy he abhorred, and order, he perceived, is only the counterfeit of peace. Henry VI gives us a tiny, if abortive, glimpse of a spirit that can exorcise them both and usher in that balance of opposites with which alone a genuine society can be brought into being. ‘Such harmony is in immortal souls.’
Richard III, as we saw when we discussed the play, is a sort of biography of Force, a fitting close to the series of nine plays that begin chronologically with King John, a confirmation of the Bastard’s belief that Truth in the long run gets the better of Commodity, a crowning demonstration of the diabolic rather than the divine right on which absolute power rests, of the nemesis that is bound in the end to overtake the ‘strong’ man. How likely is it that Shakespeare would have composed this pitiless exposure of the hollowness and rottenness of power, only to turn a few years later to a glorification of it on an imperialistic scale? That is the paradox and the question with which the conventional interpretation of Henry V confronts us. And more than that: it involves the further contradiction of Shakespeare’s almost immediate reconversion to his earlier view in plays that follow. Was Shakespeare, then, just a turncoat and ‘fool of time’ himself? That he would take advantage of the winds of patriotic emotion of his day is just what we would expect of him. It was his duty as good playwright and sailor to do exactly that. But that he abandoned his ship to them is unthinkable – or so it seems to me. If he did, we might just as well give up first as last any attempt to discover continuity or integrity in his works.”
So…what do you think? For me, whose first view of Henry V was of the heroic patriotic Laurence Olivier kind, Goddard’s essay was eye-opening. And, I think, highly convincing. But what do you all think? Share with the group!
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning: Shakespeare Sonnet #125