Voices from the platea —"Minding true things by what their mockeries be"


What is most intriguing about Henry V is that whatever fighting is shown to the audience, it is staged on the platea. Instead of impressive clashes between two mighty armies during the Agincourt battle, we can only see "the brawl ridiculous" involving "the rugged foils" of Pistol and Monsieur le Fer. If subjected to a process of rereading - which the Chorus encourages the audience to do at the onset of Act 4—this parodic, low-key "brawl" will yield the truth about the battle. The audience is asked to "sit and see,/ Minding true things by what their mockeries be". (4.0.53)

The scene between Pistol and Mr. Fer does reveal some shocking truths about the whole enterprise. In the first place Pistol keeps saying that he will cut Mr. Fer's throat. Throat- cutting is one of those dark, savage images that along with metaphors of destructive incorporation haunt the play. Pistol's comic catchphrase "couple a gorge" in Act 2,scene 1 is taken up in MacMorris's sinister description of the work he has to do on the breach of Harfleur: " So God sa'me, tis a shame to stand still, it is a shame, by my hand. And there is throats to be cut, and works to be done…" (3.3. 51-52). Throat cutting moves from the platea to the locus: during the heroic Agincourt battle the king orders to cut the throat of all the prisoners.

The second shocking truth the scene is offering can be teased out from Pistol's request for an "egregious ransom". Pistol threatens his prisoner: "Oui, coupe la gorge, par ma foi, peasant, unless thou give me crowns, brave crowns, or mangled shalt thou be by this my sword." (4.4.29-30). The word "crowns" is uttered in a telling combination that includes "coupe la gorge" and the ominous verb "mangle". Of course, the "crowns" Pistol asks for are gold coins, but they also obliquely refer to the French crown the king is out to get as his "egregious ransom". Furthermore, Pistol's threat with "mangling" Monsieur Fer is a parodic, low-key version of the "mangling" that the French king and Burgundy referred to when describing the destructive actions committed by the English in France.[37]

Like in Henry IV, the Eastcheap rogues mimic the king. The major concern of the likes of Pistol in France is "like horse leeches,…, to suck, to suck, the very blood to suck" (2.3.43-44) .[38] Pistol's words could serve as a parodic description of the devastating war the English are waging. There rises the question why Bardolph should be hanged for petty theft, when the Prince's actions are vindicated as heroic feats.

Unlike in Henry IV, interesting parodic voices are provided by an intermediate category, made of comic but totally respectable characters that are credited with officially sanctioned, locus-authored views. Characters like Fluellen utter these views on the platea making innocent yet deflating comments on the king's actions. The Welsh captain, a kind of choric figure, most loyal to Henry and who keeps harping on the "disciplines of war" and on the proper conduct in war unwittingly passes scathing judgements on the king's order to kill all the prisoners taken in battle.

By the standards of the time killing war prisoners was an outrageous violation of widely accepted laws. Andrew Gurr quotes a number of Elizabethan writers on this subject: Gentili called it "an act of barbarous savagery", Crompton described it as a "horrible murther" committed out of "bloudie inhumanity". Writing about Henry's order, Crompton, tried to find an excuse and called it one of the miseries of war " that though they [the French prisoners at Agincourt] had yielded and thought themselves sure of their lives, paying their ransome, according to the lawes of the armes, yet upon such a necessary occasion, to kill them was a thing by all reason allowed", since it enabled the king to save his army.( Gurr, 236) Holinshed, too, looked for ways to save the king's face and came up with two reasons that might have justified his action. A morally acceptable one: the order was given as a form of retaliation for the attack of the French army on the baggage boys. The second reason was indeed a tactical ploy and hence morally reprehensible: in the face of the French troupes reassembling, Henry feared that the prisoners might join them and so he ordered their killing.

Shakespeare decided not to protect his hero and gave Henry only the second morally reprehensible reason mentioned in Holinshed. Having just shed tears for the heroic death of Suffolk and York, the king suddenly senses new movements in the French army:

But hark, what new alarm is this same?

The French have reinforced their scattered men.

Then every soldier kill his prisoners.

Give the word through. (4.6.35-38)

It is only later, after the dialogue between Gower and Fluellen, that the king is shown to come up with a more acceptable reason for his action: the death of the prisoners is a retaliatory action for the slaughter of the boys.

I was not angry since I came to France

Until this instant. …..

Besides, we'll cut the throats of those we have,

And not a man of them that we shall take

Shall taste our mercy (4.7.45-6, 53-55)

Gower falsely assumes that the order to kill the prisoners was given in reprisal for the massacre of the English boys. He construes the order as an act of revenge for the terrible breach of laws committed by the French (this is the first reason Holinshed mentioned and which the play cancels off). Under these circumstances the king's response occasions the soldier's admiration and gratitude. Gower's praise - Henry is "a gallant king"- sounds of course ironical to the better informed audience.

Fluellen, like Gower, is not aware of the true sequence of events and is equally outraged at the attack on the baggage train: "Kill the poys and the luggage! `Tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offert, in your conscience now, is it not?" (4.7.1-3). What exactly is an arrant piece of knavery - does the audience wonder—to kill the baggage boys or the prisoners? Fluellen's judgement applies to both acts. Henry's breach of the laws of war is indirectly and covertly given the label it deserves: "a piece of knavery".

In a rather tenuous chain of associations Fluellen further compares Henry with "Alexander the Pig".

David Quint has shown that Fluellen does not always mispronounce b as p and that consequently Fluellen's slip was not actually an accident. "There is providence in the slip of the tongue, the providence of the playwright who here asserts his control over the script." (Quint, 61) The reasons Fluellen gives for calling the Greek general Alexander the Big/Pig instead of Alexander the Great have to be taken as mere lame excuses. The "little variations" Fluellen dismisses make the whole difference. Quint thinks that Fluellen relies upon a humanistic tradition of negative reception of Alexander and that the association with Henry is meant to call the latter's moral character in question. David Quint quotes Erasmus, Rablais and Montaigne, to show that Alexander, on account of his unbridled violence and cruelty, was not regarded as a positive figure to be readily imitated by a Christian Prince. (Quint, 53-60)

Henry does , however, refer to Alexander as to a historical figure worthy of imitation and emulation. In his speech on the breach of Harfleur, he urges his soldiers not put to shame their fathers , "that like so many Alexanders/ Have in these parts from morn till even fought/ And sheathed their swords for lack of argument ". Alexander is associated with the English soldiers that fought at Crecy, with the Black Prince and Edward III, all glorious figures whose authority is bound up with terrible acts of violence and is obliquely contested.

The comparison between Henry and Alexander could function as a possible indirect comment on the whole campaign in France as well. The same humanistic tradition quoted above regarded Alexander's wars of conquest as a form of brigandage, of large- scale theft. "I need not be ashamed of your majesty, praised be God, so long as your majesty is an honest man" (4.7.1003) states Fluellen in a way that strikes me to be rather out of context. The syntax of the sentence projects the possibility that Henry is not honest or is not always honest. Whether Henry's military campaign in France is honest or another form of the brigandage that Alexander the Great excelled in is a question that the play covertly raises.

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