From the Painting by Sir J. Noel Paton, R.S.A.
As I finish the second tetralogy’s finale, King Henry V, I contemplate Shakespeare’s effect on the presentation of history. He devotes nearly half of his theatrical contributions to stories plotted in reality rather than born of his imagination. I have argued before that Shakespeare, blessed with a genius’ perspective, sees art not only in the creative arena but in reality. The presentation of the human condition happens among humans and not within the faculties of one’s mind. Yet in order to present these conditions to his audience, he carefully embellishes, contrasts and juxtaposes the characters and circumstances that best display them. If we want to know the events and scenarios in which these kings lived and acted, we can read school text books. If we want to know the people, the conditions of their lives, the reasons for their choices, we must turn to Shakespeare and decide if his character interpretations best suit history. Perhaps while in school as a boy in Stratford Upon Avon, he studied his textbooks and imagined the joys, sorrows, regrets, ambitions and malicious conceits in each of these kings which best helped him understand and learn the history of his native land.
In King Henry V, we see the clergy, sparked to cunning by a present bill which would strip much of their wealth, manipulate a king into a conquest of France in order to protect their assets. The king would depend on their funding and would never dream of undermining his own enterprise by passing a bill which would rob his benefactors. Yet Henry V transforms the bitterness of such purposes, born of deceipt and cunning, into a resulting eden of unity and equality, love and justice. If John Falstaff truly ascended to Arthur’s bosom, he must feel right at home, as if in Prince Henry’s good graces again.
Outside the royal court, Shakespeare presents microchosmic examples of this unity. Almost immediately after the nobles resolve for France, Bardolph mediates between Pistol and Nym and begs of their friendship with his sword. And, most apparently, he devotes Act V to the wooing of Princess Katharine, an effort equalled to that of conquering France on the battlefield. Yet the union of England and France comes with their marriage rather than with Henry’s sword. Such a union signifies love and peace rather than dictatorship and enslavement. A marriage of love and justice constitutes a unity and differs from a marriage of dominion enforced by a heavy hand – only the former resounds with true unity as both parties maintain a semblance of themselves whereas the marriage of the heavy hand leaves only one party truly alive. How can one unite with nothing?
Alas, with master craftsmanship, King Henry V guides the circumstances under which he administers his justice and promotes equality. He manipultes Cambridge, Scroop and Grey to pronounce the severity of their own sentence rather than condemn them as one higher and of more import. He allows justice to decide the matter and in so doing thinks himself below justice and equal in human value to the defendant. Consider also how he and Williams, under false pretense, exchange gloves to don in their caps as a mark of their violent bet. Then compare this to the feud between Bardolph and Fluellen over the cultural mark of the leek in Fluellen’s cap. Both scenarios pit two men, of social, economic and cultural differences, against each other only to resolve in a sense of equality. Whereas the king’s disguise, possibly more appropriate for his character, allows Williams to see him as a social equal, the king again allows mercy and justice to waylay the promised violence rather than crush him as a man with more power. And in this action, Williams feels worthy and of equal import himself. Then Fluellen, a Welshman like the king, not only revels in this common ground, but displays his cultural heritage proudly and feels empowered to squabble with Pistol who would rebuke it.
The king not only preaches lofty poetics to inspire his soldiers to war, but acts equally valiant and just which inspires his soldiers to a level of respect and brotherhood. By disgarding signs of distinction and leaving only their common bonds as men, they find their unity amongst themselves and their equality. On the eve of battle, Henry, once again, wallows among the likes of Bardolph, Poins and Falstaff. Even now the pomp of majesty has failed to intoxicate his spirit. He calls ceremony a pitiable reward for the strains of kingly duty when compared to the simple happiness enjoyed by peasants. He does not abandon that strain and revel in ceremony as Richard II had. He carries the soldier’s lives on his shoulders and his father’s guilt for Richard’s fall on his brow. And all the while he finds a way to disrobe himself of all such pomp and unite himself with his countrymen under common banners of honor, bloodshed and English spirit – inspiring in them a feeling of worth and in him a share in the peasant’s simple happiness.
We can call this war an imperial conquest, and surely the history books describe it thus. But like a parent reading a storybook aloud to their children, enacting the voices and characters from the page, Shakespeare resurrects a character, the man behind the historical events, and therefore lends meaning and empathy to those long dead. King Henry V may have inspired a renewed sense of worth in us and revived our sense of humanity within the monarchs.
I miss Falstaff. But in closing my reading of the second tetralogy, I credit him for this king. Their times together cultivated a benign monarch who never forgot his naturally common bonds with his base countrymen.