Monday, April 4, 2016

Henry V - Shakespeare

After two plays of Prince Hal, we finally get to Henry V.  When Henry IV Part 2 ended, the prince had just been crowned.  There was worry throughout the kingdom that he would keep up his evil ways and wicked companions, but he quickly worked to reassure the people that this was not the case.  He had exiled his previous companions and even jailed poor Falstaff.
Henry V begins by showing that the reputation has not died off.  The nobles and churches of England are working to show the king that he has legitimate claim to territories in France.  The Dauphin of France (think prince) has responded to these claims by asking Henry V to give them up in exchange for a box of tennis balls.  Henry is not amused and sends the messenger away with much heat.  The Dauphin is not worried though, because he believes that he is dealing with a useless playboy.
The battle call goes out and soldiers from all over England get ready to fight.  We are reintroduced to some of the scoundrels of Prince Hal's early days, including Bardolph and Pistol.  They will be fighting in France.  We also find out that Falstaff has died, offstage.
The English cross the channel and have early success at Harfleur.  There are no casualties but they did catch an English soldier looting a church.  He is hung.  It is Bardolph and King Henry approves, even through this was one of his earlier friends.  They then march further into France but sickness thins their ranks.  The king decides to march to Calais, where they can return to England, but the French have mustered forces and are in their way.  There will be battle.
Henry V spends the night before the battle in disguise.  He wanders through the camp to get the mood of the soldiers.  It is grim, but he does his best to give them courage.  The next morning, as the French forces are arrayed, he overhears one of the nobles wish that they had more men.  The king responds with the 'St Crispin's Day Speech' (excerpt):
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition

The English go on to win a stunning victory against overwhelming odds.  During the battle, there is a moment when Henry V believes that he is surrounded and orders the execution of everyone that the English held prisoner.  This included a large of number of French nobles.  France asks to negotiate for peace with England and one of the bargaining items is that the daughter of the French king will marry Henry and their issue will rule both thrones.  One of the final scenes is that of Henry 'wooing' the daughter, Katherine.  After nothing but bombast and war, the scene is touching.

The highlight of the play is certainly the St Crispin's Day Speech.  It's one of the best 'rally the troops' speech in dramatic history.  During WWII, Laurence Olivier read it over the radio and, on the weight of that speech, Winston Churchill asked him to produce a movie of 'Henry V'.  I may set up clips to compare between Olivier's version and some later ones.

One striking thing about 'Henry V' is just how much it is pure propaganda.  King Henry is pious and cautious.  He tells the church that they must not lead him into any position where he would cause unnecessary deaths.  The French, on the other hand, are haughty and rude.  They practically beg the English to attack them. 
Meanwhile, Henry V is something a warrior/saint.  He goes to great lengths to give credit for victory to God, refusing any for himself.  From what I've read, this accords with the chroniclers of the day.  This piety is at great odds of the Prince Hal that we've come to know.

I didn't talk much about the few scenes with Katherine of France and they do bear mentioning.  In the midst of battle scenes, Shakespeare has given us a very nice domestic scene where Katherine tries to learn some English from her lady in waiting.  The other scene, where Henry V is wooing her is also very well done.  The king is rough and not given to poetry, but he lets her know that he can love her and he hopes she can love him too.

This concludes the 'Henryiad'.  Taken as a whole, it's an interesting piece of work, but some of the questions seem rather distant to us now.  We don't really need to worry about 'how the Prince has been raised' in the U.S.  I was able to watch all of it through the 'Hollow Crown' series.  I'll review that, as a series, separately. 

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