Using the force (of language): The Life of Henry the Fifth

Even if Shakespeare had all the effects at J. J. Abrams’ disposal, his most powerful weapon remains his words: “Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.”

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“One for Star Wars, please,” I tell the ticket taker.

I like to imagine that some other John, over 400 years ago, stopped by his equivalent of Ralph’s at 2pm on a Tuesday to buy a Tetra Pak of cab sauv, which he snuck into an afternoon showing of Star Wars after eating cucumber avocado rolls in his Prius on his way to the theater.

See, I wasn’t able to write anything meaningful about The Life of Henry the Fifth (Henry V) at home. Naturally, I decided to day-drink at the movies.

In the name of writing.

***

I chose Henry V as my second read for my yearlong immersion in the complete works of Shakespeare.

For my first, I re-read The Taming of the Shrew. For the second, I thought I would tackle something new. Something difficult – for me at least. I have a blind spot for a few things: the stock market, calendars, monarchical lineages, remembering exactly what my wife does for work, following plots.

Shakespeare’s histories, I knew, would prove quite relevant to American politics today, crazy as the 2016 race has been already. Dynasties, outsiders, campaigns, costumes, power – and so much rhetoric and performance.

So, I flipped through my Norton Shakespeare: Histories and settled on Henry V.

Henry V and Star Wars both intermix the serious with the comic. Both follow a small squad defeating a massive army against impossible odds. Both have triumphant, if suggestive, endings. Both are underdog action flicks with sequel hooks, such are some of the enduring elements of narrative. And both have sabers, of a sort, too.

Blind spot confirmed: I have no mind for plots. As Katherine Maus makes clear in her introduction to the play in my Norton volume: “Shakespeare’s Henry V is the last written of a set of eight plays on medieval English history.” Shit. There are significant parts of Henry V that would have made much more sense – say, the death of Falstaff and why the French don’t take Henry seriously – if I had read the two parts of Henry IV.

But I kind of like it this way. We may study history chronologically in the classroom, but in life, we often come to know it in reverse, don’t we?

I bet a lot of people saw the new episode of Star Wars without having seen the first six.

***

I didn’t think Henry V and Star Wars would have a lot in common. I was wrong.

Sequels? Check. Prologues? Check. Actors speaking different varieties of English? Check. Men bragging about weapons and kills? Check. Traitors? Check. Political leaders engaging in direct combat? Check. Dudes getting the girl at the end? Check. Droids? Check. Er, that must have been the cab.

Seriously though, there are significant structural similarities. Henry V and Star Wars both intermix the serious with the comic. Both follow a small squad defeating a massive army against impossible odds. Both have triumphant, if suggestive, endings. They are underdog action flicks with sequel hooks, such are some enduring elements of narrative.

And both works have sabers, of a sort, too.

***

Basically, Henry V is the Battle of Agincourt. Citing some old legal technicalities, the Church assures Harry (Henry goes by Harry) that he has a claim to the French throne. The English mount an attack. Vastly outnumbered and underestimated by the French, they kick some serious ass, aided in no small part by Henry’s pep talks. Henry becomes heir to the French crown and marries the French princess, Catherine.

If I were at the Globe in 1599, I guess I’d be chanting HARRY! HARRY! HARRY! at the curtain call.

800px-schlacht_von_azincourt
The Battle of Agincourt, October 25, 1415. Do you know which are the English? Image from Wikimedia Commons.

There are subplots, too, featuring traitors, lowly plunderers, feisty Welsh, Irish, and Scottish captains, cocky French nobles, the French princess’ hilarious English lesson, and some theatrical time travel.

All in all, the play’s a triumph for Harry, the once reckless youngster now a proven leader – “the strawberry grows underneath the nettle,” as Bishop Ely puts it well in 1.1.61. Of course, I would have better understood his transformation had I first read the preceding histories.

But, as with all things Shakespeare, the play’s more complicated than that. Its Chorus sounds a darker final note as it looks ahead to future military losses, casting a shadow on Harry’s success.

***

“Tennis balls, my liege.”

In 1.2, the French ambassador presents to the English nobles a treasure chest, the Dauphin’s response to England’s claims on the French throne. Harry asks his uncle, Exeter, to see what’s inside. Exeter answers: “Tennis balls, my liege” (1.2.258).

The French don’t take Harry seriously, his youthful indiscretions still tainting his reputation. It’s an incredible insult. It’s an incredible line. “Tennis balls, my liege.” Did Mel Brooks write this?

After serving up an elaborate tennis simile, Harry responds:

…tell the pleasant Prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly from them–for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
Ay, some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn. (1.2.281-88)

Do not mock King Harry. My goodness.

As I was reflecting on this scene, I realized that this is what has really stayed with me from the play: Harry’s language.

***

If you haven’t read or seen Henry V, you still probably know two of its most famous lines: “Once more unto the breach” (3.1.1) and “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (4.3.60).

King Henry does some legendary rallying in the play. Let’s put these quotes in context.

In the first, Harry is rousing his men as they siege the port city of Harfleur in Normandy, France:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
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, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage. (3.1.1-8)

Closing up the hole in their defenses with dead soldiers. Wow. What an image.

The second comes from Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech (the Battle of Agincourt took place on that feast day). In the following excerpt, Harry again rallies his men, greatly outnumbered by the French:

This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by
From this day to the ending of the world
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed
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. (4.3.56-67)

Coach Taylor and Braveheart definitely learned a thing or two from King Henry.

And apparently Republican presidential candidate, Senator Ted Cruz. Taking a break from building their Supreme Court case to end the Florida recount during the 2000 election, members of President George W. Bush’s legal team, including then-policy adviser Cruz, joined hands and read the St. Crispin’s Day speech.

What an image.

***

So yes, Henry delivers incredible battle speeches. His words still inform that sense of fraternity – of a self-sacrificing manliness, of a larger-than-oneself camaraderie – that many modern soldiers (and other tight-knit teams) still experience. It still imbues concepts of patriotism, service, and national identity.

And we like to romanticize it. Politicians even like to capitalize on it.

President Obama takes a lot of flak for not sounding tough enough when he addresses ISIS. Many ridicule him for not calling these terrorists “radical Islamists.” And even if he did talk like Harry, Obama still probably wouldn’t please his critics.

But King Harry knows a thing or too about the loneliness of the office.

550px-henry5
King Henry V. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

There’s this amazing moment in the play. In disguise, King Henry talks to some common soldiers, who think he’s just a fellow fighter. Knowing that the numbers are against them and they may thus lose their lives in vain, the soldiers question the King’s leadership. One, Williams, argues the King may even be responsible for the souls of the slain: “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 a battle shall join together at the latter day…” (4.1.128-31). He’s referring to Judgment Day.

There’s much more to the scene, but, when the soldiers leave the stage, King Henry soliloquizes on the great burden placed “Upon the King”:

‘Let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our care-full wives,
Our children, and our sins, lay on the King.’
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness: subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing. What infinite heartease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol ceremony? (4.1.212-22)

The president is our national lightning rod, but we have no idea how heavy the rain, how loud the thunder, how dark the skies of power can be.

But this, too, we like to romanticize. As King Harry observes: “I think the King is but a man” (4.1.99).  And in his courting of Catherine (his game is endearingly awkward), he humbly submits: “…take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king” (5.2.160).

***

That’s so crazy to me now: unlike our modern leaders, Harry fought on the battlefield. Imagine Obama and Putin drawing longswords – some presidential candidates claim that this is how they’ll lead – instead of getting briefed by generals on data collected by drones in situation rooms.

There’s a brutal, physical, and personal violence that comes across so vividly in Harry’s language.

How warfare has changed. Heralds would deliver messages to the opposition in person. In the middle of fighting, parleys would sound so the two sides would cease fighting to negotiate. At the end of a battle, survivors, as the French Herald Montjoy does after the English win the Battle of Agincourt, would “wander o’er this bloody field / To book our dead and then to bury them…” (4.7.64-65). Imagine doing that body count.

Warfare was so direct and immediate. And is, no doubt, for soldiers – and civilians – who’ve experienced war no matter how it’s evolved, as it’s all too easy to forget as we are entertained by so much violence screened in the comfort of our multiplexes.

There’s a brutal, physical, and personal violence that comes across so vividly in Harry’s language. It’s actually pretty terrifying.

Before Agincourt, telling the Governour of Harfleur what he will do if he doesn’t surrender, Harry threatens:

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and flow’ring infant. (3.3.87-91)

But he’s not done:

…–why, in a moment 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 dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as the did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid?
Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed? (3.3.110-20)

Holy shit. That is nuts. If I were the Governour of Harfleur, I’d be like, “Uh, yeah man. We’re good. We’re done here.”

***

In Henry V, we are told that body count yields ten thousand French slain, under 30 English.

That violence isn’t real to me. I don’t think we process violence in terms of the big battle or on such an epic scale. See, even if Shakespeare had all the effects at J. J. Abrams’ disposal, his most powerful weapon remains his words: “Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.”

This is the real power of Shakespeare’s language in Henry V. With these words, we are forced to imagine this disturbing scene.

This is the same reason why in The Force Awakens (yeah, I’m really making this connection) we are disturbed when the Jakku junk dealer offers 60 portions of food for the adorable droid, BB-8. We have to conjure up the little guy being scrapped.

I’m glad that warfare isn’t what it used to be, even if we still cling to long-held visions of heroism.  Way fewer people die. I don’t think there is anything more or less heroic about a leader killing enemies with his own hands than by ordering a drone strike.

So, sitting comfortably with boxed wine at a theater in Irvine, Calif., my feet kicked up on the back of the empty seats in front of me, watching the First Order (spoiler) literally blow up a whole star system, I couldn’t help but think how abstract violence has become.

That’s why terrorism is so scary. The violence is personal. Immediate, direct, real. We all have been eating at a cafe or a holiday party.

And that’s why saying things like “bombing the shit out of” or “carpet-bombing” – “once more unto the breach”? – a whole region is easy rhetoric. It’s abstract, far away, somewhere else. Yes, it sounds tough. But it doesn’t force us imagine the little kid returning from the market with some flour for his mom to make bread. It doesn’t force us to imagine the young soldier – a modern-day Williams – risking their life in vain.

***

Thanks to Harry’s language, at once mighty and menacing, my takeaways from Henry V feel muddied. Shakespeare loves to play in the mud.

But one thing’s for sure, though. Use the force – of language – wisely.

Author: John Kelly

I write about word origins buzzing in news and culture at mashedradish.com (@mashedradish). Last year, I read the complete works of Shakespeare and blogged about it at shakespeareconfidential.com (@bardconfidensh). You can also find my writing on Atlas Obscura, Mental Floss, Oxford Dictionaries, Nameberry, and Strong Language.

9 thoughts on “Using the force (of language): The Life of Henry the Fifth

    1. Yes, my project is in large part flawed as I’m not getting to see the plays staged, as they were written to be. Thanks for your note on Hassel’s performance. The wooing of Catherine is quite endearingly funny, indeed!

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  1. Hi, you blog is a very interesting one with a rare ambition. I really like the contents. I also love the interface of your blog. Would you be generous enough to tell me how you make those quotes with a horizontal line/bar. I am beginning to blog. My blog is http://www.ordinaireme.wordpress.com. Just the beginning. Thank you very much.

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    1. It seems like you have a great start to your blog – and very interesting content. Here’s how you do pull quotes: 1) click the HTML editor type when you composing your piece (vs. Visual); 2) determine where you want the pull quote; 3) at that spot on a new line, type for a left-aligned pull quote

      Text that you want in pull quote

      ; 4) if you want a center pull quote, substitute “center” for “left” in code above and right pull quote, substitute “right” for “left” in the code above. Hope this helps!

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      1. Thank you very much for the kind and prompt reply John. I was very much inspired by your blog design. I will try how it works! And, best wishes for your super awesome and ambitious project on the Bard of Avon!

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