Shakespeare's Staging
King Henry V
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Friday, 22 April 2005 06:10


This contemporary portrait of King Henry V was used as a model for the portrayal of the role by Olivier in his film of Shakespeare's play. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.


Because of its elements favoring English nationalism developed in the Hundred Years' War with France, this play has always had a popular following among English audiences, including the rebuilt Globe's, providing endorsement of Henry V as the ideal king. However, from World War I onwards more hostile, pacifist censures of this element have strengthened, with increasing directorial stress on the king's cynical motives in invading France and his cruelty both on and off the battlefield, including the cat-and-mouse treatment of the conspirators and the order to kill the prisoners on the battlefield at Agincourt. Critics' total polarization on these issues have led to contrasting productions: Olivier's film takes a positive view of Henry, consonant with the contemporary invasion of Vichy France by the allies in 1944, whereas more recently a contrasting view was presented in the Kenneth Branagh film. Critics oscilate uneasily between these interpretations and productions tend to favor one or the other, with the pacificist reading most current.

However, these inconveniently divergent evaluations of Shakespeare's Henry V as a leader can be reconciled by my view in Shakespeare's Political Plays that he starts as a rather naïve and dangerous nationalist, covering up the sins of his father's usurpation, but is progressively tempered by the rigors of war, so that he finishes by achieving his goals less through violence than via diplomacy and marriage, almost vindicating the pacifist adage "Make love not war!" Feminist stagings tend to present the Princess as merely a victim, but the popular scene in French (3.4) makes clear that by happily learning English Catherine looks forward to the marriage (which the historical princess also did), as the French lords resentfully confirm in the very next scene (3.5.27-35). Moreover, the play's final Chorus stresses that Henry's military gains were lost by the armies of his son Henry VI after Henry V's premature death, which starts Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy. By contrast, historically, Henry V's widow Catherine married Owen Tudor, and thus this Frenchwoman became the ancestress of the Tudor dynasty, as Elizabethan audiences would surely have known, for Queen Elizabeth I was a direct descendant of these Tudors. So Catherine's role merits the climactic prominence it gives to female interest. Another of the great staging concerns of the script is that before each act its Chorus offers ruminations about the theatrical effects of the physical characteristics of the Globe Theatre on its performances, as illustrated in parts of Olivier's film. ©HMR


Henry V: Renée Asherson (b. 1920) as Catherine, Princess of France, 1944. The climax of Henry V is not the battle of Agincourt but the successful courtship of this seductive French Princess (ancestress of the Tudors), the moral being presumably: "Make love not war!" Renée Asherton continues to perform in such series as Miss Marple, Memento Mori, Lovejoy, and Midsomer Murders. Copyright Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library.


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Henry V and Lope de Vega's Principle of Audience Uncertainty

If Shakespeare matched Lope de Vega in designing plays which perpetually surprise and challenge audiences by unexpected reversals of character and plot, it is only to be expected that these expedient discontinuities should challenge the ingenuity of academics pursuing the high rationality that the original Academy of Plato was designed to foster. Shakespeare sometimes even omits possible resolution of a plot line, as when Isabella fails to respond to the Duke's offer of marriage at the end of Measure for Measure. In other, more historical plays, such as Henry V, the audience's attitude to its hero oscillates from scene to scene. First they see him as a dupe of the Church. Next he is childishly provoked, by French superciliousness, to threats of massacre, rape and pillage. In executing this threat he proves to be near apparent failure when he is leading the expedition against France, and even ruefully concedes his family's guilt in seizing the succession to Richard II. Thereafter he is saved against all expectation by the battle of Agincourt, but yet he finishes with a vindication of the fashionable sixties aphorism, "Make love not war," by a marriage reconciling the two nations.

Norman Rabkin sees in this sequence of variables not a progression towards achievement of a fertile peace, but a calculated refusal to achieve consistency, making Shakespeare the precedent for New Critics' cult of irony and ambiguity. However, Shakespeare's contemporary, Lope de Vega, specifically advises dramatists to pursue such an oscillation of incident: "In the first act state the case; in the second entangle the incidents in such a way that until the middle of the [last] act no one can even guess at the solution. Always deceive anticipation and so it may come about that something quite remote from what is intended may come about" (Gilbert, 546). Lope's aesthetic makes such gyrations less philosophically agnostic and more a function of pursuit of audience "affect." This stress on an unexpected conclusion not obvious to anticipation may explain why critics have failed to do justice to the last scene of Henry V, which encourages us to see the final matrimonial resolution to be as meaningful as it is in the comedies. This pacifist view is confirmed by the Epilogue's recall of the English ultimate failure in France through reversion to a bellicose policy by the reviving of the Hundred Years' War under Henry VI. © HMR


Gilbert, Allan H., ed. 1962. Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

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