Tuesday, July 18, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 9: Henry V

The Life of Henry the Fift [sic], first broadcast December 23rd, 1979
  • Possibly written: 1599, maybe his 18th play
  • What’s it about? The callow Prince Hal is now the ambitious King Henry V and decides to invade France on a flimsy pretext. He beats the French at Agincourt despite bad odds, then marries a French princess.
  • Most famous dialogue: Hard call between “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” and “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”
  • Sources: Holinshed, of course, and a previous play that we don’t know the author of called “The Famous Victories of Henry V”
  • Interesting fact about the play: The play has a man named Chorus who keeps apologizing to us that it’s just a play and he can’t show us the armies he wants to show us, so you’d think an adaptation would just do away with all that and actually show us all that stuff, but every adaptation has included at least some of the chorus.
  • Best insult:
    • “A vain, giddy, shallow, humorous youth”
    • “Why, this is an arrant counterfeit rascal, I remember him now: a bawd, a cutpurse”
    • “The rascally, scald, beggarly, lousy, bragging knave, Pistol, which you and yourself and all the world know to be a man of no merits”
  • Best words: Theoric, bawcock, scambling, “Shall we shog?”
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I saw an excellent production in Stratford, Ontario during the Iraq War that painted Henry as a villain fighting a bogus war. For the scene where his advisor makes the case that he has a right to the French throne, the adaptors made it clear that he was stitching together several dubious accounts into one narrative, and it was impossible not to think of Dick Cheney. I haven’t seen Branagh’s film since it came out in the 80s, so I really can’t speak to it, and I’ve never seen Olivier’s. If I remember correctly, I saw Hiddleston in “The Hollow Crown” as Hal in the Henry IV plays but never made it to his Henry V.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Nobody much. Julian Glover shows up again in a tiny role
How’s the cast?
  • David Gwillim, returning from the two Henry IV adaptations, continues to do an excellent job. He is almost completely transformed from Prince Hal to Henry V, but when he hears that Bardolph has been hanged for looting, just a twinge of pain from his old self flits across his face.
How’s the direction by David Giles?
  • The chorus keeps apologizing for what he can’t show us, and he’s right to in this case because the production is quite limited, but Giles makes the most of his small budget and at least the war feels properly muddy. There are some tone problems, as I’ll note below.
Rulebook Casefile: Give the Audience What they Want

Falstaff dies off-stage during the first act without ever being seen in this play, which seems odd. Shakespeare likes him so much that he wrote him another sequel set hundreds of years later (Merry Wives of Windsor), but didn’t use him here, where he actually had a role to play? Brannagh disagreed, and included Falstaff, played by Robbie Coltrane, one of many reasons I’d love to see that film again.

Rulebook Casefile: Crafting Happy Endings

As with Henry VIII, this is another case of creating a happy ending by choosing a convenient place to end the play. In truth, the war dragged on and got bogged down in the mud until Henry died of dysentery and then everybody quickly forgot about his whole crazy scheme.

Rulebook Casefile: The Ultimate Deus Ex Machina

It’s silly that the word “archer” never appears in the play. The English victory (which is vastly overstated) is credited simply to God’s preference for the English, not superior tactics, which is unlike Shakespeare, who, in the rest of the Henriad, shows that God helps those that help themselves.

Rulebook Casefile: Read the Room, Dude

Shakespeare was justly famous for his deft juggling of tones, having at least some hint of humor and tragedy in almost every play, no matter how otherwise serious or comedic they were. But occasionally, even he could badly misfire. This play has the most ghoulishly misjudged moment we’ve seen so far. At one point, all of the boys who have come along on the campaign are slaughtered by the French, and two characters come across the bloody corpse, right there on stage, of a boy we’ve come to love, but then, while waiting for Henry to arrive, engage in an unrelated comedic conversation over the boy’s remains.

I forget how they handled this in the Stratford production, or how Brannagh handled it. I suspect that they both just cut it. The BBC productions are admirable is their attempt to show most of the plays totally uncut, even this atrocious mistake on Shakespeare’s part.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Let Them Wonder If It’s Worth It

More than any play we’ve seen so far, this one gives the director the most latitude to stage the play with wildly different interpretations. 

When in disguise as a commoner, Henry gets an earful from his soldiers about the king’s burden: “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, 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 subjection.”

That speech makes this a great play. Shakespeare himself seems to approve of Henry, but he was too great a playwright not to leave open another interpretation. In the previous two plays Hal engaged in petty theft, and was made to greatly apologize for it. Here he engages in mass slaughter and wins nothing but praise for it, but that speech reminds us to compare Hal with Henry, and wonder if the world would not have been better off if he stuck to petty crime.

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