Not an epic spectacle of military heroics


When Shakespeare wrote the draft of his play in 1599, a noisily militaristic decade was coming to an end: a renewed Spanish attempt at invasion had been heightening the still fresh memories of the defeat of the Armada in 1588 and later threats of a Spanish-financed insurrection in Ireland or of Jesuit-led acts of subversion fuelled paranoid fears as well as patriotic feelings. Protracted campaigns aiding the Dutch Protestants against the Spanish reinforced the idea of a religious war and of the necessity of just wars. Large quantities of military propaganda were published, the morality of war having become a subject for sermons and numerous books exhorting their readers about their due loyalty to God, country and king. [1]The theatres did not fail to make the most profitable use of the dominant jingoism and included in their bill of fare next to plays written in this vein also colourful stage versions of recent battles. A letter written to Sir Robert Sydney, whose brother Philip Sydney was killed in a skirmish against the Spanish forces in the Netherlands, reported: `Two daies ago, the overthrow of Trunholt was acted upon a Stage, and all your names used that were at yt; specially Sir Fra Veres, and he had plaid that Part gott a Beard resembling his… You were also introduced, killing, slaying and overthrowing the Spaniards…'[2]. The patriotic appeal of the battles and victories of Henry V could ensure the success of a theatrical performance on this subject at the newly opened Globe.[3] By the close of the decade, however, a new mood had emerged: there was a growing weariness with the militarism of the time that encouraged more critical reflective stances towards the morality of wars. Shakespeare's play is situated at the intersection of these trends and registers the uncertainty that was beginning to pervade the dominant militaristic discourses at the time they were given their most forceful expression. In his play dominant meanings are destabilized, they turn dangerously plural and surreptitiously slide in unauthorized directions.

The subsequent stage history of Henry V was for a long period of time consistent in smoothing out the knots and crags of semantic plurality in the play by presenting it as "an emotional voyage into patriotism".( Gurr, 38)

The play was popular particularly in times of war. Great success was registered in London during Britain's Seven Years War with France in the mid-eighteenth century and later on during the Napoleonic wars or the two World Wars. Lawrence Olivier's film in 1944 owed much of its success to the accumulated mood of belligerence in England at the end of the war. Not until the late 1960s and 1970s did anti-war feeling enter the production of the play. The performances of Adrian Noble and Michael Bogdanov in the 80s recuperated the contradictoriness of the messages, with the latter director insisting on the costs of the victory.

Critics have pointed out that when designed as an encomium to Henry V, performances actually staged a reading of the play that relied almost exclusively on the triumphalist vision on the events offered by the Chorus, a vision, however, which is not acted out on the stage but is merely painted in words. Sharon Tyler estimates that "for nearly four hundred years audiences have been seeing what is described rather than what is staged".(Tyler,71) Andrew Gurr also thinks that the Chorus " is responsible for Olivier's and Brannagh's cinema images of epic battle scenes that are not in the play" (Gurr, 10). The Chorus whom Gurr calls a "coercive chorus" and "a great deceiver", "strengthens a celebratory and patriotic reading" and "provides a means of coercing the audience into an emotionally undivided response to' this star of England'", as king Henry V is called in the Epilogue. (Gurr, 7) Gurr demonstrates that the Chorus's claims are belied by the stage action and that he whips up enthusiasm for his own misrepresentation of what is shown.

Gurr's point is that the play is "not an epic spectacle of military heroics and leadership". He is taking pains to show the scepticism and weariness with militarism that Shakespeare also voiced while chiming in with the dominant views of the time. Gurr adduces arguments in favour of a tension between the images painted in words by the Chorus and the meanings generated on the stage: Shakespeare deliberately introduced actions and characters that counterpoint and even contradict the Chorus' statements and that deflate the aura created around Henry V. Shakespeare even changed the historical sources to this purpose, as we shall see later on in the discussion of the king's treatment of the French prisoners.

We might add that the reading of the play that gives preference to the Chorus's encomiastic vision is rooted in a nostalgic, conservative attitude towards both the past and Shakespeare as preserver of this heroic history.[4] What such readings have had to the neglect is the tension produced by the production of a "bifold authority" in Shakespeare's theatre.

Discourses of authority were generated at two different (and potentially divisive) locations, which Robert Weinmann has called "the locus and the platea".[5] The locus tended to privilege the authority of what and who was represented in the dramatic world. In Henry V the Chorus and the king and his retinue are situated at the locus. (Andrew Gurr points out the similarity in vocabulary and diction employed by both Chorus and the king). The platea is situated at the forefront of the stage and is the place of nonconformity, misrule, clowning and disguise, all helping tocounterpoint the represented images of authority. It can involve the subversion of the dominant uses of authority staged in the locus. The rogues from Eastcheap (Pistol & company), the four captains and Williams could be said to speak from the platea.

What is interesting about Weinmann's discussion of Henry V in terms of the bifold authority is that the opposition Chorus - stage action that Gurr discusses is both reinforced and deconstructed. It is not only the comic stage representation on the platea that debunks the Chorus' celebration of Henry, but the discourse the Chorus himself employs is shown to be shockingly ambivalent and contaminated with views and meanings from the platea. Weinmann traces elements of the platea in the modest description the Chorus gives of the theatre — "this cockpit", "this wooden O" - terms, which recall the language of popular sport and pastime. This language exerts pressure on the way the historical past is represented: the figures of the mighty men of the past have to be shown "otherwise", i.e. otherwise than is done in the historiography informed by the official Tudor myth. As the discourses of the locus and the platea merge in a heterogeneous production of authority, the result is a deformation of the official images, which are spoiled, disfigured, mutilated at the same time as they are celebrated. The representation of mighty men on "this unworthy scaffold" "confines" and "mangles" them:

In little room confining mighty men,

Mangling by starts the full course of their glory (Epilogue, 3-4).[6]

What the Chorus is exhorting the audience to do is not only to exercise their imagination and see that which is not presented (I.o.18) but also to understand that which is not fully spelled out, to read between the lines, to envisage alternative readings to statements that are apparently forcefully hammered home, to create interstices within discourses of authority and thus make critical and sceptical distance possible.This chapter sets out to look at the ethical issues raised in the play in relation to the use of violence and to study how the interaction between the two types of authority determines the paradoxical position of the play: on the one hand it does not diverge from the traditionally militaristic and encomiastic approach to Henry V's victories and on the other hand it encourages a more sceptical and questioning attitude to Henry's military pursuits. The treatment in the play of powerful discourses employed to legitimate the use of violence does not preclude their critical examination. I shall consider these discourses from the perspectives opened up by the debates taking place in Shakespeare's time on the justness of war and on its proper decorum. Recourse to discourses circulated at that time will help understand the extent to which the arguments legitimising violence are designed to be read ironically as Machiavellian manipulations to camouflage lust for power. A closer look at these discourses will also indicate to what extent the arguments employed in the play were in fact constitutive of an emerging sense of nationhood in the Elizabethan period and could therefore not be simply taxed down as strategies of power.

The focus of this chapter will not be placed on the undecidability of Henry V, as both a charismatic leader and a Machiavellian prince, [7] but on the oblique suggestions that Shakespeare gives the audience to take distance to the discourses that consolidate Henry's authority and that legitimise his invasion of France. I will look at the legal discourses, at the examples from the past, at the religious arguments that are marshalled to fuel belligerent moods and to authorize the violation of fundamental norms and taboos. In the interstices created in the dominant discourses Shakespeare approaches thorny ethical problems and voices the concerns of his time about the justness of wars and the proper conduct to adopt in them. There is an underlying anxiety that the "license" and violation of rules that tend to be authorized as normative in time of war should pose serious dangers to otherwise widely accepted moral and ethic principles. The interaction between the two types of authority (produced on the locus and on the platea) is conducive to a double reading—one in keeping with the dominant militaristic ideology and the other one in an ironic mood. This chapter will try to tease out the significances that result in the juxtaposition of these counterpoint readings.

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