HONOUR AND WAR :
THE REDEEMING QUALITIES OF VIOLENCE IN HENRY IV

From a pilgrimage to a crusade

 

In his opening speech Henry IV, the former usurper Bullingbrook, makes a plea for peace and for the end of civil strife. As Alexander Leggatt has noticed, the very place of the speech at the start of the action raises doubts: "plays do not begin with reconciliation and harmony; the expectations built into the dramatic form itself sabotage Henry's vision"( Legatt ,8o). Richard III also begins by announcing peace. The audience's suspicions are enforced by the fact that Henry's promises of peace are all couched in a negative form:

No more the thirsty entrance of this soil

Shall daub her lips with her own children's blood,

No more shall trenching war channel her fields

Nor bruise her flow'rets with the armed hoofs

Of hostile paces. Those opposed eyes

Which, like meteors of a troubled heaven,

All of one nature, of one substance bred,

Did lately meet in the intestine shock

And furious close of civil butchery,

Shall now in mutual well-beseeming ranks

March all one way, and be no more opposed

Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies. (1.1.5-18)[1]

The polluting blood spilled in previous acts of violence seems to be haunting the King. The images employed recapitulate some of the themes of Richard II. The thirsty lips of the earth daubed with the blood of soldiers echo Bullingbrook's threat to drench the English soil with a blood rain. War, personified as a peasant ploughing his field and manuring it with blood — "no more shall trenching war channel her fields" amplifies this image. This line calls to mind Archbishop Carlisle's gloomy prediction made in Richard II, of civil wars manuring the soil of England.

Though he seems to be unable to shake off the grim images of war that preceded his succession to the throne, Henry operates an interesting rhetorical operation in recycling these images whereby he avoids the issue of responsibility for producing the bloodshed. The first image of the earth as an unnatural mother quenching her thirst with the blood of her children enables him to adopt an impersonal tone. Emphasis is all concentrated on the violence and the bloodshed going on; the question, however, of the responsibility for initiating this bloodshed is shrewdly avoided. In the second image Henry uses abstractions once more: once again the use of abstraction of the trenching war evacuates the need to identify the participants in the acts of destruction. The parties involved are not named but are called "those opposed eyes" "all of one nature, of one substance bred". Focus is placed on the unnatural character of the civil war.

Henry both shakes off all responsibility for the devastating effects of the armed conflicts leading up to his ascension to the throne and, in a pre-emptive move designed to avert further rebellions aimed this time at his power, he insists on the destructive and "unnatural" character of "civil butchery". He pleads against acts of violence that are committed against "acquaintance, kindred, allies". What is the alternative he suggests? A crusade — another form of martial violence where the act of injuring is supposed to have a purging effect. There does not seem to be a way out of the economy of violence generated in Richard II. In his film Chimes at Midnight Orson Welles edits the battle of Shrewsbury so that ten minutes are taken up with images of terrible violence. Adrian Noble also insisted on the futile destructiveness of war in his 1991 production of the play at Stratford. Are these theatrical translations of the play faithful to the text? Does the play define all meanings related to martial violence as unambiguously negative?

This chapter will insist on the need to historicize significances with which fighting and injuring in the battlefield are invested and trace their sources in various ideological and political discourses. I shall also consider the ways in which war is looked upon as a source for substantiating and legitimating positions of power and political values. The imbrications of violence and honour will be a major issue as well as the role armed conflicts played in the process whereby the characters' self-descriptions acquire reality or on the contrary, are de-realized. [2]A close reading of Falstaff's parodic contestation of the dominant views on honour will further enlarge the scope of the discussion.

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