Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth

Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth

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Never, in all the years since the introduction of the art known as theatre, have the dramatic works of a single person achieved the popularity and cultural transcendency that is so characteristic of the plays by William Shakespeare. The monumental popularity that has led to countless productions of all his plays, on stage and, more recently, on film, nearly all has led to a collection of interpretations on Shakespeare’s work by men and women that have been influenced by almost half a millennia of tumultuous history.

Perhaps the most influential event that can affect all aspects of society, including the artistic community, is war. William Shakespeare’s Henry V, itself written in a war-plagued time of English history, with the Earl Of Essex’s impending invasion of Ireland (Maus, 717), revolves around an earlier event of war, the legendary victory of England’s warrior-king, Henry V, over the French forces in the Battle of Agincourt. The play, written in a time of war, about a time of war, has seen many interpretations, one of the more popular of which Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film adaptation was written at the height of World War II.

A new production is now underway, continuing with theme of real world events influencing the presentation of the play, the most notable feature being the novel setting of the play: Vietnam, in the late 1960’s. As opposed to many previous productions of the play, which preserved the 15th century time setting, this production is set in the 1960’s, with a-play-within-a-play motif throughout the performance, as American soldiers perform the play in front of other American soldiers as part of some recreational pause from the madness of war, which is in turn played in front of the true, contemporary audience. The presentation of Henry V in such a unique manner allows deeper analysis of the war-time motivations of the characters in the play, the real audience being fully aware of any comparisons between the English campaign and the American campaign, made more poignant by the constant presence of the pseudo-audience, men involved directly in the latter. We can also observe different aspects of the play’s protagonist, King Henry, that would be absent in more traditional presentations of Henry V.

Some justification for this unorthodox method of presenting a Shakespearean play seems to be in order. Although immensely rich in his language and showing painstaking attention to his characters, Shakespeare’s stage direction is decidedly spartan, usually only a simple indication of when a character enters and exits.

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While scanty-looking on the page, this aspect of Shakespeare’s works has an inherent ambiguity to it which affords any director undertaking a Shakespearean production enormous freedom in his execution of the play, from the smallest gesticulation of an actor, to decisions in setting and set design which ultimately reflect the variety of interpretations a play can have. This freedom, coupled with the ever-growing popularity of Shakespeare, has invariably led to productions with a stunning amount of diversity between them, often setting the play in a time and place completely different to that intended by Shakespeare. For example, Baz Luhrmann’s ultra-modern film, Romeo + Juliet, is still true to the underlying themes and purposes of the play. The direction may be more subtle or more severe, the purposes behind novel presentation varying from simply a new, relatable way to appreciate Shakespeare, as in the case of Luhrmann’s film, to some social commentary on a contemporary issue. This seems appropriate, considering Shakespeare was very aware of the contemporary events and issues occurring in his time, as well as of the need to sell his play to the audience.

The difficulty in doing this with Henry V lies in the fact that it is a historical play, with very specific references to real people, real events and real places, as opposed to the rather general requirement that Romeo and Juliet be two fictional young lovers belonging to two fictional families. Too drastic of a change in the production of Henry V will result in too drastic a distortion between the connection of the performance to the original. An attempt to simply set the play in the midst of the Vietnam War could not feasibly work. Any reference to the King of England or the King of France, for example, could not have any meaningful connection to the war in Vietnam. Therein lies one of the first practical uses of the play-within-a-play motif. By having the play performed by American soldiers in Vietnam, for American soldiers, we still have the connection between the two worlds, 20th century Vietnam and 15th century France, without a clash and resulting muddling in the storyline.

The opening of the play is crucial to its understanding, especially considering the unorthodox nature of this production, and thus deserves some attention. The play will open in the jungles of Vietnam, where we see a hastily erected stage amidst the silently foreboding flora of a hostile land. A large group of about a dozen young American soldiers in army fatigues enter the scene, and interrupt the silence, their voices raised in a overwhelming, but incomprehensible din. The arrival of the soldiers is accompanied by the heavy beats and legendary guitar work of Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower in the background, which is the first of many instances where music of the era will be played, usually with the appearance of the chorus. The music is merely there to give the real audience another taste of the time in which the play is set, and what better artist is there to remind one of the 60’s in America but Jimi Hendrix? The pseudo-audience takes their place between the real audience and the stage, generally removed from the played scenes, but always within the consciousness of the real audience. With the arrival of the Chorus, a single man, again in army fatigues, there is cheering, whistling and good-natured jeering from the soldiers, demonstrating the close-knit nature of these soldiers. It is obvious, through his relaxed and informal nature, the Chorus is far more familiar with the soldiers than he would be if performing in front of strangers, and the line “But pardon, gentles all” (Prologue, 8) is said with a certain amount of sarcasm. The scantiness of the stage is once again brought to light as an “unworthy scaffold” (Prologue, 10), enhancing the impression that the play, like the stage, has been hastily put together. The moment the first act begins, the audience of soldiers fall silent, and will remain so except at certain, meaningful points of the play. The use of the play-within-a-play device serves another purpose in that there is a continued sense of separation of the audience from the play even in the original work, as the chorus constantly reminds the audience of the illusion of the theatre, giving the play a “self-conscious lack of realism” (Maus, 721):

Can this cock-pit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
(Prologue, 11-14)

This illusion is further enhanced by an even more obvious isolation from the play when compared to the pseudo-audience, both in physical distance and the close relationship between the soldier-players and the soldier-audience. The Chorus also pointedly ignores the real audience until the epilogue.

The Vietnam War works so well in association with Henry V’s Battle of Agincourt because of all the parallels between the two wars. Firstly, the audience should note the overwhelming male presence from the very beginning of the play, which continues throughout. We see a scene comprised entirely of men, with male bonding occurring in their good-natured teasing and raucous behaviour. Not only is Henry V devoid of any strong female roles, it is a common theme throughout most of Shakespeare’s plays, in which the female plays a secondary role to that of the male. The Vietnam War also, had a pronounced lack of female presence, despite it being near the height of female liberation. Thus, all female roles will be played by males, as Shakespeare had done in his Globe, and as the soldiers will do because of the absence of females.

A second, perhaps more important similarity between the Vietnam War and the English campaign in France is the general feeling of the soldiers of the invading force. Both the English and the Americans were an apparently outmatched invading force, with an overwhelming sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a feeling not only rooted in the continuous presence of hostile enemies, but also from a lack of support from their country, rife with anti-war sentiments. It is also a happy coincidence that the Americans, faced with hunting or being hunted by “Charlie,” the slang term for soldiers of North Vietnam, are now watching a play in which the main opposing force is led by King Charles. Now the real audience has the advantage of knowing the outcome of the Vietnam War, while the soldiers, both players and audience, know only of the outcome of the English at the Battle of Agincourt, nothing less than a tremendous victory. The Americans would feel a sense of kinship with the English, the sense of not belonging, perhaps more acutely than Shakespeare intended, and would look with hope that their war and the Battle of Agincourt, now similar in their eyes, should have similar outcomes. After all, Laurence Olivier’s 1944 World War II film adaption, an overtly patriotic, “lusty celebration of war and glory” (Schwartz), proved to be prophetic in its timely ending. The real audience knows that this is a hope that will never come to fruition, and this knowledge echoes the dark foreshadowing we see at the end of the play, in which the Chorus discusses King Harry’s imminent death.

A young soldier dressed in the uniform of a high-ranking officer, perhaps a General, will play the actual character of Henry V. This is to stress the misplaced appearance of youth that is so important to the character of Henry. A young man dressed in the garb of a king, as would be the case in a more traditional production of Henry V, would not strike either audience, soldier or contemporary, as truly out of place as it should be, simply because of the difference between present society and one ruled by a monarch several hundred years past. However, the sight of a General in his early twenties would truly jar the minds of both actual and illusionary audience. This appearance of youth is key to the character of King Henry, as it makes his eloquent leadership and ironclad determination all the more pronounced. It also brings to mind the early, misspent youth of Prince Harry, and image that King Henry has taken great pains to erase. In both Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film adaptation, and Olivier’s 1944 adaptation, several key scenes were cut; in particular, a deletion of the scene involving the massacre of French prisoners on Henry’s orders, resulting in a false raising of Henry as a hero: “[Branagh] has deliberately shredded vital documentation, provided by the text…and his Henry therefore emerges as a familiar figure: the handsome military hero and godly patriot at the heart of an establishment cover-up” (Fitter, 260). This production will not delete a scene so vital in the recognition of Henry’s character. For a man, barely out of his teens, to have the determination to banish all his old friends and repent the “courses of his youth” (1.1.25) in order to gain a crown whose inheritance is at time times tenuous, it would seem rational that such a man could conjure up the will and the rage to so viciously avenge the deaths of the unjustly murdered boys.

The use of the Vietnam War as a device for greater analysis and understanding of Henry V will be used heavily near the end of the play, which frames the play when the use of it near the beginning is considered. The final battle on the fields of Agincourt, for example, will be portrayed in a slow-motion fight sequence between the French and English armies, their American soldier uniforms identical and indistinguishable between each other, while Buffalo Springfield’s anti-war song For What It’s Worth plays in the background. This accentuates the feeling of absurdity of the war, and the anguish King Henry feels when he says, “I know not if the day be ours or no” (4.7.76). The comedic aspects of the final scene between King Henry and Princess Catherine are heightened by the fact that Catherine is played by a man. This scene however, is interrupted by the rocking of explosions and whirling of helicopters overhead, as the play set in Vietnam is brought out of its happy illusion by the harsh realities of war. The scene ends with the Chorus, walking among the dead, among the shattered illusions, speaking directly to the audience now, without the background music. The Chorus is the link, the common connecting factor, between all three worlds of the play: the audience, the play, and the play-within-the-play. The dark foreshadowing of the epilogue is mirrored by the dark outcome of the Vietnam War, and as the Chorus speaks in a whispered voice, the lights dim, until the last lines are spoken in the blackness of the theatre as the curtain falls.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
Henry V (4.3.60)

Works Cited

Fitter, Chris. “A Tale of Two Branaghs: Henry V, Ideology, and the Mekong Agincourt” Shakespeare Left and Right. Ed. Ivo Kamps. New York : Routledge, 1991, 259-76

Maus, Katherine E., “Henry V”, ed. Greenblatt, S. et al.- The Norton Shakespeare – Histories, W.W. Norton, 1997, 717-793

Schwartz, Amy E. “Henry V.” Washington Post February 1980
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