Welcome back, Reader! Today’s entry will be the first in my series, titled ‘Arresting Images.’ This first image is one of my all-time favourites, coming from Henry V. Now, I know that some might brush away Henry V as lost in the mix of the other Henrys (of which there are 6), neglected in favour of reading a more notable history play like Richard III, or a ‘classic’ like Romeo and Juliet or Othello. Well, Reader, I can’t tell you how highly I recommend this play simply because it is more directly relevant to our lives today than those classics I mentioned. Why? Three words: War on Terror.
This play opens with two high priests looking for a reason to invade France, a clever strategy which will distract the King from sacking the church’s hefty coffers. They search through ecclesiastical history and find that the French crown cannot be transferred through the female line, which is how the current French king got it. If it had been passed through the male line, as per ‘Salic Law,’ the English line would have taken the French throne, or at very least some French land. This theory, however sexist, would be good and well if it did not contradict the grounds for Henry’s own rule, which the clergy conveniently disregard.
This hypocrisy already begins to remind me of the military turmoil of the past decade: who were the Americans posed to fight? The Afghans, the Taliban, the Iraqis, or terrorists across the Middle East? Hadn’t the American government contributed nuclear weapons to Iraq only a decade before? I don’t know enough on this topic, but I can there’s a fishy smell of ambivalence (aka, figuratively speaking out of both sides of one’s mouth), a fishiness that Shakespeare exposes in England’s forefather in Henry V.
Shakespeare uses this play as to demonstrate the uncomfortable and disconcerting nature of an ambivalent rule, showing at once:
- the benefits and drawbacks to jingoism
- the unity and divisiveness between the four nations of Great Britain, and their endeavour to fight an external enemy to maintain their own unity
- the bravery and cowardice of both kings and commoners
and the issue we’re dealing with:
- the injustice and justification of expending lives (both common and noble) for a flimsy, though supposedly noble cause
At first, Henry displays the appropriate reluctance to send his country to war, telling the clergymen:
God forbid, my dear and faithful lord,
That you should fashion, wrest, or bow your reading,
Or nicely charge your understanding soul
With opening titles miscreate, whose right
Suits not in native colours with the truth;
For God doth know how many now in health
Shall drop their blood in approbation
Of what your reverence shall incite us to.
Therefore take heed how you impawn our person,
How you awake our sleeping sword of war
The king’s democratic, pacifistic spirit lasts but a few lines. When the French prince’s messenger comes with the gag-gift of tennis balls, an insulting jab at the carelessness of his youthful alter-ego ‘Hal’, Henry’s sleeping sword awakens with a vengeance. Soon enough, he has lobbied the four nations: English, Irish, Welsh, and Scots, to fight for his ‘cause’.
Let me tell you, Reader, just like George W. Bush in visiting bases in his military fatigues, King Henry feels pretty darn good about himself for having united his people, mobilizing them against a common enemy. On the night before battle, he disguises himself in order to personally get a feel for how his soldiers are faring. When the common soldiers suggest to their hooded visitor that they hope the cause that they fight for blindly is at least honourable, worthy of having amassed such a huge army instead of being a petty fight that the king could have resolved himself, the disguised king is insulted. One soldier, Williams, puts the stranger in his place, giving him (and us), a glimpse of the same uncertainty that the king himself once had. Yet, Williams speaks with a stronger resolve, built on the knowledge of what’s to come. Shakespeare writes him this speech with such vivid imagery that it reminds us that war is not a fun rainy-day game of RISK, but rather a harsh, painful reality:
But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of
This speech gives me all the reasons I need to love Shakespeare. Let me break it down for you:
- Shakespeare (William S.) is giving the common soldier (Williams) a voice. At the end of the play, the king takes note of the death of fellow nobleman, but worries not about the souls of the commoners. Shakespeare gives this commoner a name and a voice and something so important to say. Never assume that Shakespeare was only a writer for kings: his works say something to everyone.
- He exposes the hypocrisy of kings by showing that the king’s single moral moment is only good in theory, but worthless in practice. It’s one thing to question the value and virtue of the monarchy today, but in his time, it was a crime punishable by death. Shakespeare tip-toes the line of treason, and deserves props for his gutsiness.
- Even if this play didn’t give us a stencil outline of the young, beautiful, American (and Canadian, and British, etc.) lives that George W. Bush threw away in pursuit of his unattainable ideal, Shakespeare shows us to question the powers that be. We vote for them because we want to trust them, but to give our lives for their cause is another story. We may, as individuals and as part of our nations, love our countries, but we mustn’t expect our leaders to consider us as individuals when they make decisions. A painful truth, but a truth indeed.
…And that’s all for this week! Please feel free to write in with comments, and especially questions: if you need me to clarify something, don’t be afraid to ask!