Why This Play?:
Well, we just passed the 600th anniversary of the Battle at Agincourt (Oct 25)! Plus, my Shakespeare class covered this play two weeks ago, and I’m slowly catching up. Plus-plus, it’s nice to fully round off the tale of Prince Hal's transformation to King Harry. The professor leading my online class did a marvelous job of giving a good background on the Tudor history at the time the play was actually written, comparing the character of Henry V and the reality of then monarch, Elizabeth I, as well as paralleling the battles in France with the coming of the Spanish Armada. Two stirring orators, two beloved English figures who had a myth about them even during their lifetime, two lonely leaders who make hard decisions for their nation.
The thing that struck me most about the play is that it emphasizes just how lonely it can be at the top. Everyone doubts leaders at some point – especially themselves. How can the one in charge trust that he will lead others down the correct path?
So What Happens?:
Chorus is a very active character in this play, stirring the audience up by describing scenes of war, imploring us to use our imaginations to help the actors along, and throwing out occasional “current” (circa 1590s) references to politics. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely have a lengthy discussion about their new king. Turns out King Harry (formerly Prince Hal) impresses people left and right. He’s religious, wise, and completely reformed from his old wild ways. And it’s time for some action, so Canterbury decides to support a completely dubious claim to the French throne through Harry’s lineage and laws about succession not being legal through women. Some other earls and dukes agree, and King Harry is thinking he needs to go to war to claim France. Then an ambassador comes on behalf of the Dauphin (French prince), tells the king that his claims on France aren’t valid, and presents a gift of tennis balls as a swipe at Harry’s former fun-loving days. Harry, who’s worked so hard to turn his image around, furiously tells the ambassador that those tennis balls are really “gun-stones” and France best watch its back.
Chorus informs the audience that while everyone’s readying for war, three English nobles have taken a bribe from the French to murder Harry. Stage is set in London, where we see some of Harry’s old tavern pals. Nym is upset because Pistol has married Mistress Quickly (on whom Nym had his eye). Bardolph keeps the fight brewing between the two from escalating. Mistress Quickly goes to nurse an ailing Falstaff, and later returns to inform the tavern crew that Falstaff is dead (wasted away from lack of love from his Hal). At the coast, Harry calls forward the three conspirators. Although he shows mercy to a drunk who has railed against him, none such luck for these fellows. He reveals his knowledge of their plot, they confess, and he orders their execution. It’s all done in such a way to emphasize that Harry is a fair king, but capable of making ruthless decisions when his hand is forced. Over in France, King Charles is trying to calm the Dauphin, who insists they should not take “vain” King Harry seriously. The Constable and Charles think otherwise. A visit from Exeter proves Harry’s seriousness – he really, really didn’t like those tennis balls.
Chorus leads us on a mental journey to France, and lets us know that the French have made some offerings (princess’s hand and a few dukedoms) to King Harry, but that’s he doesn’t think it’s enough. The English are coming for you, France, and they’re starting with the town of Harfleur. The town’s walled in, and Harry urges his battered troops to scale and attack in a rousing, patriotic speech (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…” III.i). After some fighting, the Governor of Harfleur meets with Harry, who gives a now utterly terrifying speech about what his troops will do to the people of Harfleur if they don’t surrender (raping, killing, babies on spikes…good God). Governor makes the wise decision to allow the English to set up camp in his town, and Harry switches gears to instruct his soldiers not to harm anyone there. They have bigger fish to fry.
Over in the French palace, Princess Catherine is working with her attendant, Alice, to better her English. [I don’t speak a lick of French (excepting a few cooking terms!), but I was mostly able to follow this funny little scene.] The French nobles discuss how much they dislike the English, and how they’ll overthrow them in no time. At the English camp, Harry’s old friend Bardolph has been caught stealing from a church. Harry shows yet another definitive break from his reprobate youth – he orders Bardolph’s execution, indicating that his soldiers are not to steal from the French (especially not from churches!). This is Hal no more, for sure. King Charles sends messenger Montjoy to give King Harry the chance to leave France, but Harry firmly says the English are still moving on to fight.
Another Chorus moment, which describes the English army at Agincourt the evening before battle. The soldiers are all weary and disheartened, but Harry walks among them, looking cheerful and speaking words of comfort and encouragement to all. It’s working on most of them, but not all. Harry dons a disguise as a fellow soldier, he runs into Pistol and others named Bates and Williams. In my favorite exchange in the play, Williams challenges the idea that soldiers would die in battle without sin (assuming the sin would be the king’s, as he ordered the soldiers to war), and he questions if the king has good motive to start the war to begin with. What if he paid a ransom to save his own neck and forfeit his followers? Harry in disguise refuses to acknowledge this option, and Williams and Harry trade gloves and agree to fight each other after the battle if they meet again. Then Harry’s off to pray before the battle, imploring God not to punish his men for his father’s usurpation of the crown.
The next morning, the earls and dukes and such are gathering to prepare for battle, and their army is hugely outnumbered. Westmorland wishes the English had more troops, and Harry states they have to work with the honorable men they have. Another patriotic speech is in the works! Harry acknowledges that on this St. Crispin’s Day, the English will fight their damndest and be remembered for doing so. Goooooo, England!!! Then there’s a whole lot of fighting, which you may or may not see, depending on the staging of the production (or your imagination if you’re reading). The small English army really needs all hands on deck, so Harry makes the pitiless move to execute all French prisoners to free up the English guards to continue fighting. Captain Gower tells him that the French killed all the boys that were in tow to watch over the English army’s gear. Harry is horrified and incensed; he’ll keep fighting until the bitter end. Montjoy arrives asking if the French can bury their dead…which means the English have won. Harry receives news that thousands of French are dead (many of them nobles/knights), whereas a mere 25 Englishman have perished. Obviously, this is God’s work, so let’s be thankful and not too puffed and proud about the whole thing. Oh, and he reveals to Williams that he was really the king all along back when they were arguing, but all is forgiven. You need the little guys to help keep it real. Back to England!
Chorus informs us that Harry was very modest about the whole victory upon his return home (probably wise, since he sought out a dubious war to begin with). Welsh army captain Fluellen (you know he’s Welsh because apparently their “b’s” are pronounced as “p’s”?) beats on Pistol and makes him eat a leek for making fun of the Welsh [note to self – learn more about Welsh vegetable-wearing customs]. After a few years, Harry goes back to France to meet up with Charles. The two kings ultimately agree to peace if all of Harry’s demands are met. His main demand is the hand of the French princess, so he and Catherine (and perma-attendant and English tutor Alice) are left to discuss. Thus proceeds a strangely moving and funny scene that demonstrates the king’s humanity after a play’s worth of hard soldiering. Harry declares his love to Catherine, and they have a difficult time understanding each other’s words. The overall meaning (love, marriage) is understood, however, and she consents to his wooing. He even gets a kiss in. King Charles returns and blesses the marriage, consenting to all Harry’s other demands as well. It looks like a triumphant ending of love, peace, and prosperity for the two united kingdoms!
That is, until Chorus shows up to remind us that happiness and peace is short-lived. It’ll all go up in flames when their son, Henry VI, takes the throne. So it goeth.
Check This Out:
Hollow Crown made a definitive move to make King Harry look back on his previous lusty life and to show that he continually struggles with (but does not go back on) his decision to cut off his former friends. The biggest director’s license on this is the move to show that Bardolph was already executed, and afterwards King Harry approves this execution (rather than from the straight text, which implies that he gives the order for execution, which is certainly a bit harsher). Despite some fits of fury, Harry shows kindness ("a little touch of Harry in the night" bit) to others, even hugs Williams after he forgives him! This portrayal is certainly a kinder, gentler Harry than some of his violent speeches and decisions imply.
I loved the fabulous Sir John Hurt as Chorus, but who doesn’t love the War Doctor/Kane?
It’s pretty astounding to see how the Battle of Agincourt still resonates as such a source of patriotism in the UK. A great deal of that is certainly owed to Shakespeare’s extremely popular St. Crispian’s Day speech. Check out all the events that occurred last month to celebrate the 600th anniversary!
Thoughts and Themes:
This is usually the space where I consider the play at large, focus on a particular aspect, and internalize it. How is what Shakespeare is saying reflective in my own life (or any of our lives)? While that’s certainly not the best scholarship, writing about the personal is almost always more interesting for the writer and the reader. And isn’t that one of the beautiful things about the Bard’s works – that audiences/readers 400 years later can still relate to his themes and characters? Shakespeare manages to be damn personal while also being a shared experience. So how does a story about a young, newly-religious and serious king, looking to prove himself by starting a war, relate to this 21st century woman who lives in California?
[I thought I’d leave in that “ummm” – that was my stopping point on writing for an entire evening while I thought about it.]
I highly doubt that any of my readers have experience with being royalty, with being the leader of a nation, or with being considered to be a human instrument of God. Shakespeare didn’t either, nor have (any?) of the actors who have played King Harry, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t/aren’t capable of enough empathy to make the man human to the audience. We have all been in some sort of position of power before – maybe as the head of a project at work, a parent presiding over children, even the one among your group of friends who casts the deciding vote over what movie to watch that evening. We’ve all at some point been the one who got the final (or total) say in what happens, if only for a moment. Where the decision at hand affects others, not just yourself. You can choose to be the benevolent leader, or the tyrant. King Harry…well, he chooses both.
As a mother, my word is law to my 2 and 5 year olds. Law that they constantly question and test. [Truly, if my son had theme music, it would be “Authority Song” by John Cougar Mellencamp.] And I think I’ve finally cottoned on to something that major political leaders also learn…tides change, and your stance sometimes has to change with them. A queen or president or minister may change tactics due to new information. I have to change tactics based on my kids’ developmental stages and emerging personality traits (and, oy vey, input from their tiny peers). Your leadership has to take into account variations in your followers, their attitudes, and environment. Like Harry, this means that I wildly vacillate from acting the benevolent leader to tyrant. Just on a slightly smaller scale. We both have our own reasons for the decisions we make for our troops, even if they’re not appreciated.
Questionable decisions made by King Harry:
- Waging war on another country by claiming that he had some rights due to something his great-grandfather did years and years before and the French breaking their own Salic law.
- Ignoring basic 15th century conduct of war by ordering all French prisoners to be executed.
- Insane speech (III.iii) to the Governor of Harfleur in which he threatens the rape of the town’s women (3 times in one speech!), plus all manor of violence and cruelty to the town’s old people and babies.
- Making an example of an old friend’s misdeeds by ordering his execution.
Questionable decisions made by me last week:
- Despite his screaming and thrashing, pinning my 2 year old down with my legs to put a jacket on him on a cold morning.
- Coaching my whining daughter on the merits of being a big sister – when your little brother is hurting/bugging you, JUST SHOVE HIM OFF OF YOU ALREADY. YOU ARE BIGGER THAN THAT LITTLE TWERP; PUT HIM IN HIS PLACE.
- After purposely scaring my daughter and listening to her scolding me, gleefully telling her “I know, you have the world’s meanest mama.”
- Literally running away from my crying kids to the back yard so I could finish my phone conversation regarding a carpet cleaning appointment.
Moments of unsolicited kindness from King Harry:
- After Harfleur surrenders, Harry retracts his cruel threats by ordering the English troops to harm none of the town’s citizens. Indicates again later that all French civilians are to be treated with respect.
- Forgiving Williams for his inadvertent insults to the king’s judgment…even giving him a glove full of money in the process.
- The tireless urging and supportive conversations to his troops the night before Agincourt.
Moments of unsolicited kindness from me last week:
- Surprising family with a quick baked dessert (pumpkin butter + cream cheese + puff pastry = sweet pumpkin pasties, more or less).
- Allowing plenty of time for stomping in rain puddles on the way to school (yes, I joined in too), plus multiple re-plays of the Puddle Stomp song by our local kids troubadour, Andy Z.
- Impromptu tickle-war-dance-parties. Good for the soul.
- Long, unfettered exploration of the toy aisles while running errands at Target.
Every leader experiences a Williams now and then, someone who directly questions your authority and the validity of your decisions. In any leadership position, you will sometimes have to explain your thinking or sometimes have to apologize for your unsuccessful choices. We just do the best we can, soldier on, and hope in the long run that our kindnesses outweigh those questionable decisions.