Henry V

Henry V begins with some of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare’s work: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention -” spoken by a Chorus. Like the Dancer at the end of Henry IV Part II, this character is an actor, a member of the company, addressing the audience directly.

Ah, the terrifying prospect of audience participation...

And here I am able to find a better focus for this blog, because I don’t want to just ramble about Shakespeare at the end of a week.  I’d like to actually accomplish something beyond reading all of these plays.  I want to explore ways to reinvigorate theatre as an art form, and make Shakespeare in particular relevant to a modern audience.

There are, of course, right ways and wrong ways to do that.

Let’s begin with the obvious.  Henry V is not the greatest play that Bill ever wrote.  Not bad, certainly, but I personally prefer the Sixes.  So why is this play relevant?  And my answer to that would be: I don’t quite know. It seems to be a play that celebrates war, any way you cut it, even if it does acknowledge the horrors of that activity.

Like generals in the Henry IV plays, Henry V is still concerned with the fate of his common soldiers.  He asks the French King to avoid war and “Take mercy On the poor souls for whom this hungry war Opens his vasty jaws.” But we see Hal all grown up, merciless and unflinching in his tactics.  Later on, on the eve of battle, “the fewer men, the greater share of honour.” Many people die, the Boy that provides a little bit of comic relief early on is even killed offstage, along with all the other children left to guard the luggage at Henry’s camp.  Henry orders all of the French prisoners killed.  Former friends of Hal are hung for stealing, including Bardolph.  We hear that the Hostess from the Boar’s Head Tavern, who is now married to Pistol, dies while her husband is away at war.  Falstaff dies offstage, never seen, before the war even begins.  It’s pretty sad, really.  But why is this war happening?

"Paris balls"

Henry just wants to take control of France, because somewhere back there in his lineage, he can claim that he is king of it as well as England.  The Dauphin offers him tennis balls instead, as a joke.  But Henry uses this as an excuse to mobilize.

I've heard worse excuses to start a war (BOOM! roasted)

So on the one hand, there are these horrible things happening, but on the other hand, it’s a pretty stupid reason why they had to happen in the first place.  And Henry has become a lot more pious since we last saw him, and repeatedly claims “that God fought for us” in his war.  And he reasons that “war is His beadle, war is His vengeance,” meaning that war is simply a means to kill sinners anyways.  And if a soldier’s conscience is clean, then the flight to Heaven leaves him better off.  But later, we see that Harry is really speaking of himself when he speaks of sinners: He prays, “O, not to-day, think not upon the fault My father made in compassing the crown!” and hopes he will win despite his own shortcomings.  His claim on the crown he fights this war for seems just as arbitrary as York’s claim for the crown in the Sixes, and all the bloodshed of that era.  But these are all things that come out during analysis of the whole series, it doesn’t seem evident in this play by itself.  And that makes this play mostly a celebration of war.

Which is okay if your country is fighting Nazis at the time, I suppose. Man, that war really spoiled us.

So I return to my initial question of staging, because I think it is relevant to all of Shakespeare’s plays.  It helps to allow a glimpse at the conventions of theatre at that time.  The chorus enters at the beginning of every act, and delivers the epilogue as well, allowing for the scene to change behind him as he relates the information.  He encourages the audience to use their imagination, “entertain conjecture of a time,” and “Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege,” and therefore plays to theatre’s strength: REPRESENTATION.   The dialogue between audience and actor is what makes live theatre unique from film.  There is a different artistic effect from showing someone a horse and evoking the idea of a horse.

See? In between the horrific series of murders. A horse!

I’m not saying that realism should be completely eradicated from the theatre, but you have to admit that the style works better in film.  In fact, the medium of film IS the “Muse of fire” that Shakespeare is invoking through this Chorus.

"A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!"

In a way, Shakespeare is trying to “piece out our imperfections” of theatre.  But I think that effort of the audience, to fill in the gaps and make sense of the blank space on a stage, is actually a strength.  There is truth in art like that, just not photorealistic truth.  And I keep seeing theatre that tries to fill in the gaps with stuff, with attempts to be like film, when really that blank space on the stage is something magical to play with.  Operas and Musicals can have their grand spectacle, but dramatic theatre needs that breath of imagination – of inference – to stay relevant.

Required reading.

But enough of that. Let’s look forward to the next play.  I’ve been busy, so the whole “blogging” part of this experiment is falling behind.  But I’m working on Merry Wives of Windsor next, which I’ve never read before, but it’s a comedic spin-off featuring Falstaff.  Presumably before he died.

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