Henry V


Shakespeare’s Henry V, the St. Crispin’s Day speech before Henry and his outnumbered English forces win the Battle of Agincourt: “We happy few, we band of brothers.”  Once again, like Edward III’s victory at Crecy (post here), this is an English victory in the Hundred Years War with France they will eventually lose.

On this date King Henry V died unexpectedly (1387-1422), throwing England into a virtual state of civil war for the next sixty years.

Frye in The Critical Path offers some incisive comments on the finely woven subtext of wanton violence and destruction beneath the nationalistic bravado of Shakespeare’s play:

Shakespeare also shows the identification with the audience’s attitude that the oral poet has.  On the level  of explicit statement, or what the play seems to be saying, he seems willing to accept the assumption, or implication, that Henry V was a glorious conqueror and Joan of Arc a wicked witch, that Shylock is typical of Jews and Judaism, that peasants are to be seen through the eyes of the gentry, that the recognized sovereign is the Lord’s anointed and can cure diseases in virtue of being so. . . . When we examine the imagery of Henry V, and listen carefully to the moods and overtones which that imagery suggests, we realize that the play is very far from expressing the simple-minded patriotism that it appears to be expressing.  (CW 27, 46-7)

In A Natural Perspective he reminds us that, thanks to the archetype of the wheel of fortune, the apparently comic resolutions of history are an illusion:

The wheel of fortune is a tragic conception: it is never genuinely a comic one, though a history play may achieve a technically comic conclusion by stopping the wheel half-way.  Thus Henry V ends with triumphant conquest and a royal marriage, though, as the epilogue reminds us, King Henry died almost immediately and sixty years of unbroken disaster followed. (120)

And in Words with Power he observes that a “history play” has ultimately very little to do with history and much more to do with play:

So we cannot say that, because it is a historical play, Henry V is “following” history, with a few alterations allowed only to poets.  If we look at the total myth, or whole story, of the play, we get a history with another dimension of meaning.  As he goes on, Shakespeare tends to leave English history for the more remote and legendary periods of Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth, where the titanic figures of tragedy can emerge as they could not have emerged from the battle fields of Agincourt or Tewkesbury.  In time these periods are more remote from us; in myth they are far more immediate and present. (CW 26, 46)

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