Into the breach once more

[A repost from 17 October 2007]

When English spine meets brickwork, out come two clichés. Both were given their outing in Saturday‘s Times: “England expects” (front page) and Ben Macintyre reduced to finding himself in Agincourt, looking for the “Band of brothers” (page 6).

It took Malcolm quite a while to recover from the way Henry V was taught him, which went very little further than Olivier’s propagandist and bombastic heavy edit. In due course, he had to teach it himself, and always to fifteen-year olds mugging for a GCSE. Eventually he applied himself to the text, seeking something more than the mud-and-blood stuff.

The first problem is that it seems a play without much in the way of dramatic tension. From the beginning we know what to expect:

… can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt? …
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high-upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder: …
… jumping o’er times,
Turning th’accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass.

In passing, Malcolm notes the Prologue to Act V tells us the play was performed soon after Essex left for Ireland (24th May 1599) but before the disaster of that campaign was known. This suggests the “wooden O” was the Curtain Theatre, not the Globe (which the Chamberlain’s Men occupied about July of that year). The audience at those early performances would be acutely aware of the historical background and the legendary victory.

Was that enough to carry the play?

Of course, everything seems to depend on the depiction of Henry himself. A year earlier the same audience had seen Prince Hal become King Henry, and in doing so renounce Falstaff and his own youthful follies:

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.

Henry V begins with the reminder that Henry is a changed man:

The breath no sooner left his father’s body,
But that his wildness, mortified in him,
Seem’d to die too.

Then there is that long scene which introduces Henry (and is a swine to teach).

It involves the long account by the Archbishop of Henry’s right to the throne of France, a debate over what precautions to take about a possible attack from Scotland, and then the clear decision by Henry:

Now are we well resolved; and, by God’s help,
And yours, the noble sinews of our power,
France being ours, we’ll bend it to our awe,
Or break it all to pieces: or there we’ll sit,
Ruling in large and ample empery
O’er France and all her almost kingly dukedoms,
Or lay these bones in an unworthy urn.

This is before the entry of the French Ambassadors, and the tennis-balls insult. Henry makes the decision personally, and without anger.

Neither Olivier nor Branagh seem quite to follow the text here: Branagh in particular uses the tennis-balls episode as a way of marking Henry’s arrival at maturity and royal stature. Branagh’s Henry is a small and immature figure, who does not yet fit the great shadow he casts, dominated by older, bigger figures of Canterbury, Ely and Exeter – until he stands and delivers his first big speech:

We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us; 
… And we understand him well, 
How he comes o’er us with our wilder days, 
Not measuring what use we made of them. 

We notice, in passing, Henry’s first apology for his wild youth – we shall see this again in the play, at a particularly significant moment.

… tell the Dauphin, I will keep my state, 
Be like a king, and show my sail of greatness, 
When I do rouse me in my throne of France.

That puts the Dauphin effectively in his place. We might have expected the Dauphin to be developed as a worthy opponent for Henry, but that is not so. Shakespeare would then need to alter history even more than he does; and clearly it is not his intention to use such a Punch-and-Judy approach.

The scene ends with Henry’s first great monologue, which establishes two significant ideas.

  • First:

For that I have laid by my majesty,
And plodded like a man for working-days …

That sounds very much like a foreshadowing of his later words, dismissing Mountjoy’s final demand for ransom:

We are but warriors for the working-day;
Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirch’d
With rainy marching in the painful field.

  • Second:

But I will rise there with so full a glory,
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us.

What catches Malcolm’s attention here was the curious confusion of pronouns: the singular “I” (presumably Henry as a man) and the plural “we” (Henry as royal personage, the personification of his country).

Malcolm therefore posits:

The dramatic contrast in the play is not between Henry and his opponents, or even between the English national character and the French: it is the conflict between different aspects of Henry’s own personality, between the man and the King.

Malcolm swiftly moves on to the scene at Southampton, when the Scrope plot is exposed.

Olivier omits this scene entirely: its moral ambiguities and questioning of loyalty did not fit the mood of 1944. Branagh, though. developed it into something quite extraordinary. He picks up Exeter’s passing description of Scrope:

the man that was his bedfellow,
Whom he hath dull’d and cloy’d with gracious favours,
That he should, for a foreign purse, so sell
His sovereign’s life to death and treachery!

In Malcolm’s schooldays, and long after, the bedfellow was explained to mean nothing more than “childhood friend”, “close companion”.

Branagh reads into it a homosexual relationship. Branagh’s Henry becomes personal, spiteful, and embarrassingly exposed. This is not the characterisation of a remote royal personage: it is a man teetering on the edge of self-control. We are being shown a very violent streak in Henry here. To Malcolm’s mind, the scene gains in significance by being sandwiched between the two scenes set in the Boar’s Head Tavern, with Falstaff dying upstairs, off-stage,— dying, in part, of a broken heart because of being deserted by his Prince Hal.

The warrior-king, and the cruelty of war

In Act III, Henry spells this out his ultimatum to the people of Harfleur:

look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds.

These are not empty threats: Henry intends to carry them out if he is not obeyed instantly. There is good historical evidence for this aspect of Henry’s character: when he besieged Rouen in 1418, he starved thousands of “bouches inutiles” (the women, children and non-combatants evicted from the city) trapped between the lines.

It is not only his enemies who face Henry’s anger. His former friends receive no special favours:

Fluellen: ... one that is like to be executed for robbing a church, — one Bardolph, if your majesty know the man…
King Henry: We would have all such offenders so cut off: … for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

Henry’s justification for supporting the sentence seems to be based upon good reasons, but once again there seems to be something like irony in his use of the word “gentler”.

The night before Agincourt

In Act IV we come to the one moment in the play when Henry reveals his true inner self. In the dark and in disguise he meets and argues with the common soldiers, facing death in the next day’s battle.

Williams, not realising he is talking to the King, makes the accusation:

I am afeard there are few die well that die in battle, for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument?

Despite Henry’s lawyer-like reply, the accusation clearly hurts, and later on he extracts a revenge by nearly provoking a duel between Williams and Fluellen.

In his crucial soliloquy, Henry broods upon the accusation, and consoles himself for the hard life of a king, condemned to sleepless nights on behalf of his subjects, and paid only by

ceremony, … idol ceremony. 

Here Henry accepts the truth of Williams’ argument. Why else does Henry refer to and apologise for his father’s and, (since he has benefited too) his own crimes of ambition?

Not to-day, O Lord,
O not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred new…
More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon.

There are two further examples in this Act which shows Henry’s cruelty. When the French rally in the middle of the battle, Henry’s reaction is sudden and terrible:

The French have reinforced their scatter’d men: —
Then every soldier kill his prisoners;
Give the word through. 

When the French treacherously attack the unprotected English camp and kill the poys and the luggage … expressly against the laws of war., we see a truly grim Henry:

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: — go, and tell them so. 

If we take at face value what Henry says here, then it is a horrifying speech. He is saying that everything that has happened in the campaign had occurred because it was done as a calculated exercise: Harfleur, the march across Picardy, the attrition of both sides.

And, yes, there is more of the same. We still have:

The wooing of Katharine.

This, the notes and critics argue, is “comedy”.

At the time of the Treaty of Troyes, Henry was around thirty years old: the Princess Katharine just fourteen.

We have Henry’s declaration of love:

I speak to thee plain soldier: if thou canst love me for this, take me; if not, to say to thee that I shall die, is true,- but for thy love, by the Lord, no; yet I love thee too. And while thou livest, dear Kate, take a fellow of plain and uncoin’d constancy … If thou would have such a one, take me: and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king …

There is very little plain or soldierly about what Henry is saying. It is not as if the message is hidden too deeply. Katharine is being given a brutal lesson in the realities of diplomacy and politics:

I love France so well, that I will not part with a village of it; I will have it all mine: and, Kate, when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine.

The lesson was well-taught: Henry V’s widow would re-marry: enter Owen Tudor.

The Epilogue

This, then, is Malcolm’s reading of the play; and he is aware that it is very different from the usual romantic patriotic view. He recognises the opinion that this play is Shakespeare’s last word on kingship, Henry is the ideal of the Christian monarch, and the play is recalling a golden era in English history.

After reciting Henry’s achievements at Harfleur and Agincourt, and his diplomatic triumph at the Treaty of Troyes, the play ends with the black-cloaked figure of Chorus. The purpose of Chorus throughout the play had been to praise Henry, and to direct the audience to the next development of the story.

At the end, though, there is a very different note. The epilogue is written in the form of a sonnet. In a sonnet we expect the first eight lines (the octave) to describe the situation, and the final six lines (the sestet) to comment thereon. The comment is quite devastating: all of Henry’s achievements ultimately were futile:

Henry the sixth, in infant bands crown’d king
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France, and made his England bleed.

The two great battle speeches

Malcolm now returns to the speech before Harfleur, and the address before Agincourt.

He suggests that it is important to bear in mind that, for much of the play, Henry and the English are losing. The landing at Harfleur was too late in the campaigning season. The capture of Harfleur as a base, which should have been cut-and-dried, stretched out over six weeks. The march from Harfleur to Calais was, at best “a calculated risk” (Juliet Barker‘s description), at worst a desperate attempt at bravado. Agincourt itself turned on an astonishing series of French blunders and self-imposed disaster.

The speech before Harfleur

It starts from a note of desperation:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.

Then Henry waxes poetical:

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height.

Malcolm notices the sub-text of this: imitate, disguise, lend, all suggesting pretence. It is all play, not the reality of war. The imagery is somewhat over-cooked: tiger, cannon, galled rock. As the scene develops, we appreciate that the attack was unsuccessful, and the siege will grimly continue.

Then Henry addresses his followers, taking care to distinguish the two classes. First, as is polite and proper, the nobility:

On, on, you noblest English,
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war.

After a bit of flattery (noblest), the appeal is through ancestry and family pride (fathers of war proof), dynasty (in these parts from morn till even fought, going back to the campaigns of Edward III), legitimacy and shame (attest, dishonour not your mothers), and the established idea of showing-a-good-example to the-lower-orders. It is essential to remember that the only task of a medieval noble, his sole purpose in being, the root of his privilege, was to prove himself in combat and ensure his posterity: everything else could be done for him. He was marked by his ability to mount and fight from a horse, and by his suit of war-proofed armour.

Then Henry turns to the lower orders themselves, the bowmen and infantry.

And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and…

They are yeomen: the class between the nobility and the landless serfs: wishing to climb the social ladder, but fearful of falling lower. They are skilled in their farming, but the farming is pasture, reminding us that the wealth of England, down to Shakespeare’s own parents and beyond, was sheep.

They, too, are reminded of their breeding: an ambiguous term, which could refer both to their own parentage and to their skill in animal husbandry.

They are upwardly mobile, like Shakespeare himself and all the other Elizabethan “new men”, ambitious to leap class barriers, which amounts to the noble lustre in their eyes.

They have simple country pleasures, such as hare-coursing, so the simile of greyhounds in the slips. Their sport today is reassuringly everyday familiar: the game’s afoot. Malcolm speculates if there is a twinkle of a joke there. Wouldn’t “game’ be protected, and chasing it amount to poaching? Which, of course, any yeoman (including a young Shakespeare) would covertly indulge in at the lord’s expense.

Then the rallying cry:

upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

Malcolm notices the sequence here: the unifying religion, then the familiar ‘Harry’ as a personal appeal to comradeship. Then the more remote nationalism. Only finally to a religious hero.

The address before Agincourt

This is the crunch moment, up against impossible odds, when Henry had to rally some sparks of spirit. The English army trekked across northern France, an unnecessary journey which should have taken just over a week, but had now extended into three, in foul weather, which was worsening to constant rain. Now, just a short march from the English town of Calais, they were brought to battle by a larger (though not, as Shakespeare and some school histories have it, vastly overwhelming) French force. It is also not true, as Juliet Barker shows, that the French tactics were unco-ordinated.

That’s the history: here’s the theatre. This speech, too, is worthy of close analysis. It is something more than mere rabble-rousing:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

Henry enters, having just overheard Westmoreland wishing for reinforcements. His opening merely recognises the inevitable: there are no additional resources. Instead he offers honour, an abstract, but one of the marks of chivalry.

Chivalry

This of itself needs a passing comment. Chivalry was the morality which controlled the man on the horse, who was the military equivalent of the modern tank (and, curiously, needed about the same size of support team).

Chaucer had described it:

A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.

Those essentials of knighthood would translate into modern English as the code of the noble class: giving one’s word and keeping it, no matter what; offering due respect and deserving respect from others; generosity of spirit and well as of pocket; the good manners of the Court. Henry picks up one those,  fredom, to continue:

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:

Then he reverts to his first theme: honour, that most prickly issue of the Medieval and post-Medieval period.

But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.

This has segued through stomach to fellowship. The stomach was the seat of anger, the opposite of self-control, according to the theory of the four humours. Apart from the shame of walking out on one’s fellows, Henry manages therefore to lob in a belittling hint of pettiness. It is going to be the fellowship theme that will be developed further.

First, though, a touch of the domestic. At first it seems little more than a momentary reflection on the church holy-day back home:

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’

Half way through that section, the appeal changed. It becomes an invitation to project into an imagined certain future, when faced by the uncertainty of an impending battle. It also invites the hearer to imagine a prosperity in which there is the wherewithall to provide the “feast”. Within that is a hidden, cruder appeal: the promise of wealth from plunder or ransom, the substantial motive for going to war.

Then comes the moment of “lightening”, a wry invitation to imagine reaching old age, and being able to “improve” on the personal history:

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day, … 

The previous speech, before Harfleur, had clearly distinguished between the orders of society. Now Henry deliberately blurs and overlaps them. This may be a perceptive recognition of the growing cameraderie that would inevitably have developed over months together. It might invite speculation that Shakespeare talks from experience, if he spent some of his “lost years” in a spell with the army in Flanders. It invites the common soldiery, drawn from the yeoman class, to identify with the highest nobility as their “best mates”:

Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.

The slow, settling, sonorous long vowels of the personal names, the commonplace of “Harry”; then “flowing cups”, again the domestic and cheering tone, as he moves towards a peroration:

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by, …

It’s the inheritance and posterity line again, the dream of establishing, or continuing a dynasty, that Henry used in the earlier speech. Then the rhythm increases: the vowels shorten, the language veers to simple monsyllables:

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

Three soaring promises there: one of an eternal memory, a kind of heaven on earth, kinship with the king himself, and superiority over all those at home:

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:

Again the carrot of social advancement:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

But not just that: “they’re at home in bed: we’re here doing the job of real men”; “you’re not just country yokels, you’re better than the landed gentry”; and the where, when, what and who of the final line. Notice, though, there is something deliberately missed out: at no point does Henry give a reason why the battle is necessary: the one question of all those the common soldiers had proposed to him the night before:

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 .

Wrap up

It’s the most commonplace that is frequently overlooked: the live Mills bomb we have used as a doorstop because Granny did the same. We employ the cliché to avoid thought, but the implication may indicate strange truths (witness the white South African who announced he felt “the Blacks needed a fair crack of the whip”).

What is the English journalist saying, when he falls back to relying on Shakespeare? It is a desire to link with the “tradition”, that strongest, most potent, and potentially most poisonous aspect of our culture. It is a piece of self-inflation (as, also, Malcolm’s essay here).

We recall the bravado of Henry V, and likely do so with Olivier’s curious pronunciation and emphases in our heads. Perhaps, though, the play is the thing, and we might usefully return to the whole text, and strip from it trite jingoism. For the text is an exercise in psychology: that of the eponymous Henry, but also of those, on stage and in the audience, seduced by his rhetorical expertise.

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