Posts from the ‘Henry V’ Category

Sci-Fi Version of “Henry V”

Shakespeare’s plays have been set everywhere, from the modern day to Elizabethan England to prehistoric times to World War II. Sometimes it works and sometimes it bombs. But one concept that seems like it would work, which I recently heard about, is Henry V in space. It’ll star Michael Caine. I like this idea. War is universal, and who doesn’t like to see space battles on a silver screen? It’s a thrill, as the latest Star Trek movie reminded us so well. And hey, maybe this will be extra evidence for when the Klingons try to make their case.

However, my hopes were dashed a little when I found out that, according to NBC, the film hasn’t yet begun shooting and may never come to fruition. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed.

What I can’t seem to find, as much as I look, is whether this film would be in Shakespeare’s language or not. I’m hoping it is. I’d love to hear Crispin’s Day from the bridge of a space station. Wouldn’t you?


Women and land in “Henry V”

Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most misogynistic plays — yes, comparable even to The Taming of the Shrew. In some ways the former is even more dangerous than the latter, since The Taming of the Shrew brings out its misogyny in such a way as to be laughable and over the top, while misogyny in Henry V is more subtle.

I was revisiting Henry V recently, and exploring the way in which women are equated to land. Consider, for example, the manner in which Henry equates Katherine to the several small cities he’s willing to exchange for her in the final scene; the manner in which he Anglicizes her by calling her “Kate,” an English nickname; or the way she tries to learn English by asking for words for parts of the body, as if she were becoming English herself: “This is my English arm/hand/neck.”

But in my last reading, I stumbled upon a pun that reinforces this image. Henry gives two speeches before Harfleur. In the second of the two, he tells the governor that should Harfleur not surrender, even he (Henry) won’t be able to stop his men from coming in and raping all the women (III.iii.13-14). Rape is a key to conquest. But the first of the two speeches is where I picked up on something I hadn’t seen before. It is one of the two very famous speeches of the play, and because the lines are so famous, they’re not very often heard: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more / Or close the wall up with our English dead!” (III.i.1-2) For the first time, I payed attention to what was being said here: There is a hole in the walls of Harfleur that Henry is encouraging his men to forcibly penetrate. Harfleur doesn’t just have women to be raped; it is a woman to be raped.

Falstaff Gets a Bad Rap

This is a subject I’ve talked about on the podcast more than once, but I figured I’d lay it out in text.

Falstaff gets a lot of attacks, not just from the people in the two plays that feature him, but those who read and see them. He’s regarded as Hal’s corrupter, but in many ways, he is Hal’s redeemer. Hal is torn between the world of Hotspur and the world of Falstaff, and everyone around him hopes he’s pulled towards the former, starting with his own father:

O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
(Henry IV pt 1, I.i.86-89)

But would that be a good thing? I don’t think Shakespeare thinks so. I’m willing to grant that Elizabethans valued a great warrior, but Hotspur has too many flaws for it to be worth it. In Henry IV pt 1, Hal stands between the body of Hotspur and Falstaff, who is lying on the ground playing dead. It’s a visual instance of Hal between his two forces. But after Hal leaves, Falstaff stands up. He’s almost Christlike in rising from the “dead.” He’s Hal’s salvation. He makes Hal a better king in the future.

Of course, I don’t deny that Hal’s rejection of Falstaff is a necessity. The new King Henry V can’t actively associate with a thief and a coward. Yet what he learns from Falstaff prevents him from being destroyed by Hotspur’s rage and lack of self-control. Consider two comparisons:

Henry V includes a scene in which Henry discovers a plot against his life (II.i). And he handles it expertly. How would Hotspur deal with this situation? He deals with a similar situation, in which his own relatives lie to him about the king’s offer to resolve grievances (Henry IV pt 1, V.ii). It’s not an identical situation, but Hotspur being Hotspur, he deals with it in a fit of rage and emotion without stopping to consider that he might be being lied to. He’s so consumed by anger that he never stops to think or act rationally.

The second instance I want to draw attention to IV.i of Henry V, in which Hal goes into his camp of soldiers to talk to them at their level. Shakespeare does a marvelous thing sometimes: He gives a character the ability to speak in either poetry or prose, depending on the situation. Iago, for example, can talk at either Othello’s level or Roderigo’s level. Hal is another example. He functions at every level.

And who taught him to talk amongst commoners?

Metric variations in “Henry V”

Since I started working with Susan Guthrie, I’ve been paying more and more attention to verse form in Shakespeare. Susan is a big believer in classical verse form, and I’m picking that up from her, and discovering some incredible new things.

For example, I was reading Henry V recently, and came upon noticable variations in one of his famous speeches (IV.i.282-299):

O God of battles! steel my soldiers’ hearts;
Possess them not with fear; take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if the opposed numbers
Pluck their hearts from them. Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a-day their wither’d hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood;
And I have built two chantries,
Where the sad and solemn priests sing still
For Richard’s soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon

Notice the variation on the four lines in which Henry talks about what he’s done and what he will do in Richard’s memory:

Toward heaven, to pardon blood;
And I have built two chantries,
Where the sad and solemn priests sing still
For Richard’s soul. More will I do;

I’ve never been much of a believer in the hype around Henry as a great patriotic hero. Personally, I find the play that bears his name to be more ironic than promotional with regards to patriotism. For example, when Henry says that if any commoner fights at Agincourt, the battle will “gentle his condition” (IV.iii.64), does he mean it? It doesn’t seem so, given that only the nobles get their names specially mentioned when Henry finds out about the English death toll (IV.viii.101-104). Moreover, why is this “mirror of all Christian kings” (II.Cho.6) praying to a pagan god in the above speech?

Anyway, my point here is that, if indeed Henry is not entirely honest and genuine, the varied lines in his speech may indicate dishonesty; ie, he’s not genuinely sorry about Richard’s death or his father’s actions, nor does he truly intend to do the penance he claims. (After all, nobody in this play seems to acknowledge the fact that, due to Henry’s father’s usurpation, even if the King of England is legitimately the King of France, Henry is legitimately neither.)

Some editors choose to compile those lines to turn them into proper blank verse. When read as three lines, they work well:

Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul. More will I do;

These were printed as four lines in the First Folio (see here), but it’s well known that printers would often break up lines to take up space when printing a book. So perhaps when Shakespeare wrote those lines, they were in iambic pentameter, and this whole long rant was meaningless.

What do you all think of Henry and this speech?