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October 17, 2010


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Ben T-S

The problem is it's the most top-heavy play ever written. Henry has over a thousand lines, then there's Fluellen, the archbishop and the Chorus, which are the size of small-ish supporting characters. All other roles, by Shakespeare standards, are just bit parts. So you end up with a script that is mostly one guy talking to nobody. All the other great dramas have at least modest counterweights to their protagonists: Claudius, Cassius, Edgar/Edmund, Lady M, Iago, Buckingham. But nobody challenges or balances Henry.

Aaron Andersen

There was a really interesting radio broadcast this weekend--an episode of the CBC's Ideas show--one of a series about the evolution of the idea of the development of public opinion, public life of people other than aristocrats, etc. http://ow.ly/2UW6W

Included in the episode was a discussion of the cycle from Richard II to Henry IV parts 1 and 2, then Henry V. A thesis of one of the Shakespearean scholars on the program was that this cycle demonstrated a shift in the nature of the understanding of kingship from something divinely situated to something publicly situated.

Richard II believed that his authority was from God and was absolute. Henry IV deposed him, proving this probably wasn't true, then Henry IV worked to consolidate authority in a somewhat more secular fashion, through strength. Henry V used his charisma to get the people on his side, and essentially shifted the source of (his) kingly authority to be largely vested in the love and confidence of his subjects in their king. Henry V, in other words, discovered the power of PR to fill the gap left by the decaying divine right of kings.

None of this has anything to do with Henry V's viability as a play in an of itself, but if you can believe Shakespeare was writing a commentary on this shift, his rebellion against the propaganda makes sense--as a commentary on it and soft-gloved criticism of it.

Ian Thal

The French aren't good villains because they were never intended to be villains. They're simply foreign antagonists. The themes of the play revolve around the tension between the personal and political: how much one is willing to subsume one's personal agenda, or regional particularism to the larger patriotism. Henry is morally ambiguous because he's the character upon whom everyone else projects their feelings regarding patriotism. Henry is, in many ways, the most monstrous character in the play-- so there's a degree of irony when he receives praise. Henry needs to be a cypher or the tension between the various characters in Henry's army doesn't work; this is also why the play allows vastly different interpretations.

(This is also an aspect I wrote about not so long ago: http://ianthal.blogspot.com/2010/06/henry-v-meets-john-yoo-for-fun-and.html )

"Most of the characters feel like stand ins for either concepts or entire races of people."

That's a convention of renaissance theatre (and this is the problem of teaching Shakespeare sui generis without reference his contemporaries or predecessors): The Welsh soldier for instance, is a stock character of British theatre. The point again is that the play's themes revolve around patriotism-- so to do deep character analysis would be too much a digression. This isn't a play about jealousy, ambition, love, or resentment all of which are themes that demand greater character exploration.

The comedy is very funny when the actors and director understand comedy. Remember that this is a play and it only comes alive when it is performed. These are very old jokes-- so it's much more important to tell them well.

As far as the Branaugh film: It's a Kurosawa-patische and the final scene, the wooing between Hal and Kate is utterly unconvincing (admittedly, it's a difficult scene to pull off, and I've only seen it done once.)


Hey Ian,

You make some interesting points, and just to be clear, the plays aren't taught completely out of context, nor is my understanding of them devoid of context. And we'll just have to differ on the Branagh. As to the "foreign antagonists" thing, okay fine we can use your term for it, but if you sub it in my point still stands: they're not interesting. Nor are the jokes at their expense particularly funny. As to thecontext and convention issue... It seems to me that your comment simply deepens and explains ways in which the play is unsatisfying as a play today. As I tried to point out in the follow up post, I actually find the play quite fascinating as a work of literature. I just don't find it interesting as a play.

Or I guess another way of putting it is that some Shakespeare plays have "aged better" than others. 12th Night, for example, seems nigh indestructible. Even Branagh's total-downer take on it for the BBC-- which, if you haven't seen, is worth spinning if only for the actor who played Baldrick's take on Feste-- still has its moments of delight.

I'm curious... do you have a list of Shakespeare plays that you think don't work all that well on stage? Most people I know who really love Shakespeare do. Perhaps this one wouldn't belong on yours... as for me, I've never seen a production of Henry V that makes a convincing case for it, and I've seen many.

Ian Thal

I haven't read a Shakespeare play that doesn't work on stage. I do think that there are plays that cannot play to a modern audience in a way that was played to the Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences due to our staging conventions, or our current morality. (The comic ironies about gender in Twelfth Night or As You Like It aren't so layered now that women can perform on stage-- casting a boy as Rosilinde or Viola these days would feel like camp today; Merchant of Venice can no longer play as a comedy now that antisemitism is something so shameful that even many anti-Semites refuse to admit to it-- it has to be played as a four-act tragedy with a comic epilogue.)

When I see a Shakespeare play not working, it has to do with either a.) a company imposing a theme or dramaturgy that is alien to the play; b.) actors or directors not understanding the script.

Trying to see the French as villains is silly because quite simply Henry is the closest thing to a villain in the play, the French are simply the antagonists whom he seeks to humiliate, (and note, I have never seen a production where the tennis ball gag doesn't get laughs.)


Seeing Henry as the villain, though: isn't that applying 20th Century morality to the play? In the world of Elizabethan England, Henry was the hero, this was probably something closer to an action film than a serious meditation on patriotism and loyalty and yes, the characters are stock and not well-fleshed out. I love love LOVE the Branagh film, but don't really feel the need to see another production or film of it, or even the Branagh film again. I think Isaac has a point: there's not much there there. And I don't think it does Shakespeare any disservice to say that. He wrote a lot of plays, not all of them are great plays. It's okay.



Hey, we agree on something (Henry being the closest thing to a villain in the play). But that reading of it relies on getting on Roland-barthes on the play and examining the ways it sabotages itself and the understanding of Henry that SHakespeare was stuck with. In other words... if one reads it as you and I do, what do we do with the way the play tells us it wants to be interpreted, for example with the Chorus? Now, there's some scholarship advancing the idea that the Chrous wasn't always included... for example, I think the First Folio doesn't contain Chorus' speeches (although I'd have to double check a source on that).

Have you ever seen a production of the play that attempted this interpretation and it worked? I'd be interested in hearing about that.

I disagree with you (perhaps ideologically) about where/how to find fault with productions of Shakespeare plays that don't work. Sometimes it is the production's fault, surely but soemetimes it may be that what worked in Elizabethan times may not work now. And sometimes it may be that the play was written very fast for money.

We accept that about non-Shakespearean playwrights from his time, why impose the burden of unassailable greatness on Shakespeare's texts? To me that gets in the way of actually investigating them. As someone who loves Shakespeare, seeing him as a flawed, very human writer unlocks the texts in interesting ways.

Ian Thal

Isaac and J.:

I think you have fundamental misapprehension in that you are looking at the play through the lens of genres that have clearly established heroes and villains. While Shakespeare was perfectly capable of writing within genre conventions (comedy, history, tragedy) he also did not feel restrained by genre-- in fact, he's explicitly violating genre conventions all through this particular play. In acts I-IV, Hal is not a hero under any genre convention. His rationale for going to war is presented as morally dubious: even the Church, which gives sanction to the invasion, is presented as having abandoned the theory of "just war" and are presented as merely seeing the war as an opportunity to further their own geopolitical ambitions (which, in Protestant England, would have made Henry look like a papist tool.) Harry's victory at Harfleur is presented as owing to his threat to turn the city into a slaughterhouse and a rape camp. He has all his prisoners executed at Agincourt.

The English audience of Shakespeare's time has a good reason to withhold their full sympathy from Hal. At the same time, he isn't a traditional genre-approved villain like Iago or Richard III (or even Don John) who come out and announce their villainy to the audience. Hal is very deliberately kept a cypher in Acts I through IV because the theme of the play is patriotism. It's the lords, officers, and soldiers who really interest Shakespeare: what is at issue are their differing attitudes towards war, and their king.

Hal is only a clearly defined genre-approved hero in peace-time: Act V where he goes from being a political cypher to a romantic-comedy hero whose mission is to woo the girl-- and this isn't the easiest scene to pull off because we have already witnessed Harry engaging in things that even by the standards of 16th century law and morality would have been seen as atrocities (a liberal arts education, J., means I do know something of the morality of the time.) There's a huge amount of tension in Act V-- even if we already know that the cypher will get the princess, it needs to be believable that she will consent to marriage to this blood-soaked war-monger. As I have mentioned, I've only seen this scene effectively pulled off once: and since Hal is a cypher, it depends on the actress playing Kate (and sorry, Emma Thompson couldn't hack it.)

(We'd have similar problems if Act I of Much Ado About Nothing actually presented Benedick, Cladio, and Pedro at war, or recounting their wartime deeds in great detail in Acts II-V.)

I've seen engaging productions of Henry V-- and the Branagh version just isn't at the top of my list. I simply don't think he's a particularly interesting or inventive.

* * *
I can't say I have seen (or read) every Shakespeare play, but the question was: "do you have a list of Shakespeare plays that you [Ian] think don't work all that well on stage?" and my simple answer was "no" (I can't say the same about Mamet or Lanford Wilson.) Even the most disappointing productions have not turned me off to a given play. At worst, I have come out of these things hoping that the next time I see a production (and note, I have seen multiple productions of many of these plays.) My disappointments come not from Shakespeare's language or his plotting, but bad casting or poor directorial decisions-- the fact that I have seen multiple productions of Henry V tells me the problem with Branagh's version was Branagh and Thompson, not Shakespeare (but I have seen worse.)

My admiration of Shakespeare doesn't come from his being "Shakespeare" but because I have developed some understanding of his work and the context in which it was produced.


Hey Ian,

My question to you was how your interpretation of the play-- one I'm sympathetic to-- could be rendered in a way that was dramatically satisfying in our current era. You've decided to dodge that question in order to (a) blithely state things as established fact things about the play that are controversial, (b) stroke your own ego and (c) passive aggressively insult me and J.

So let's get back to the issue at hand: Assuming that Harry is, indeed a bit of a cipher... the closest thing the play has to a villain, as you said earlier... how do we render this up in a way that works on stage? And what do we do about the fact that the play is constantly foisting on us an interpretation of Harry (in Harry's, Pistol's and the Chorus' word) that Harry's own actions throughout the play don't support? Can we do that without resorting to deconstruction?

Also... because here i disagree with you... how do you support the idea (and how do you stage it) that the play isn't, in fact, about its protagonist who so thoroughly dominates the play in terms of amount of stage time, number of lines, and focus of even the scenes he is not in, and shift the focus onto the supporting cast? If the play is really about Fluellen and Pistol, for example, if that's what "really interests" Shakespeare with this play, why does Fluellen not appear until Act 3? And here's an example of you claiming something as established fact that's not, frequently Fluellen is read as being there largely for the purpose of establishing Harry as Welsh, and thus bolster Harry's claim to represent all of Britain. In other words, it's not about Fluellen at all, and not about patriotism, but once again about the Greatness of King Henry V. (I don't necessarily agree with this position, I'm just saying it's an example of how interpretation is, you know, rife with controversy).

Ian Thal

I'm not passive-aggressive, Isaac, I'm openly disagreeing with you:

I'm noting that so much of your argument relies heavily on demanding that Shakespeare conform to genre conventions, while J.'s point about the morality of Shakespeare's age doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, either in looking at contemporary sources or at the play itself.

You are also misusing the term "deconstuction." A play, especially a play like the one under discussion, is not a theoretical construct; the play is loaded with ironies and unanswered questions not because it is simply a product of language, but because the author deliberately wrought it from irony, thus "deconstruction" is not only not the appropriate reading strategy you also aren't doing deconstruction.

First of all, I don't buy the idea that Hal is "the villain" simply because Shakespeare is refusing to play nicely with genre conventions (this play has neither heroes nor villains): part of the thrust of the seemingly incongruous Act V is that a life can't be contained by genre (so Shakespeare is actually a deconstructionist avant-le-lettre as genre is a closed system with clearly defined heroes and villains.) The same man who who launched a war under a dubious causae bellus (the whole scene is a parody of legal reasoning), and the same man who threatened to turn Harfleur into a rape-camp, who executed unarmed prisoners, becomes lovable in peace-time.

These war-time acts, under the morality of the age, are questionable at best. Fluellen may not appear until Act III but the war he is patriotically supporting has already been established as being both legally and morally dubious as early as Act I.

The very behavior of Harry in his capacity of warrior-king makes the pomp of the chorus, Hal's own patriotic speeches, and those of his supporters problematic. Characters in plays are not assumed to be reliable narrators when it comes to the morality of their actions-- they have their own agendas, but what we see as audience members, shows us that even the chorus is not reliable.

He's a cypher who commits the most "villainous" acts in the play, though we keep getting told he is a "hero. " From the play, what evidence do we have that he's a hero? Only that the princess falls in love with him, and that he presumingly feels some esprit de corps with his soldiers, even while waging an illegal war.

Ian Thal

That should read "causa belli" not "causae bellus." I hadn't had enough coffee at the time.


Hey Isaac - random question: What do you mean when you say, "while Fluellen forms a causal connection between the killing of the boys and Henry's order to commit what even the British in his time considered a war crime, Henry does not."


I'll just quote Tony Tanner's "Prefaces to Shakespeare" on this one, as I should have done earlier, where he discusses 4.6 and 4.7:

"Notice that there is no mention [in Henry's order] of the French killing the boys minding the baggage-- this is cool (or coldly furious) military `necessity.' Now, immediately after this, we shift to Fluellen... This does refer to the French killing of the boys. But, coming immediately after Henry's order to kill the prisoners, the comment `tis expressly against the law of arms' could equally apply to that order, because it was also `against the law of arms'--in our conscience now, is it not? In the play, it is certainly not an act justified by the French `knavery'."

Or to put it another way, the play spends an awful long time or the procedures of ransoming prisoners, which was considered the honorable way to deal with them. Obviously there wasn't a Hague back then, so I was, shall we say, colorfully overplaying my hand with the term "war crime", but it still would probably seem an extraordinary measure in both Shakespeare's day and our own.

Ian Thal

Though there was not a body like Hague at the time, there were certain conventions about the justifications for going to war, treatment of prisoners, non-combatants, and general conduct that Hal violates from the get go.


Thanks, Isaac. Literally wasn't sure what you were talking about, but now I understand.

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