I’m not sure I even realized that Shakespeare wrote a play called Henry V let alone that I would like it. Harold Bloom (my stuffy discussant) had very little to say about it other than Falstaff isn’t in it. He seems to judge every character by Falstaff or Hamlet. I get it: they’re transcendent characters. Move on.
Here are a few of this plays’ famous lines:
“Once more into the breach!”
“The game’s a-foot.”
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
“Every subject’s duty is the king’s but every subject’s soul is his own.” (I don’t know if that’s famous, but I liked it)
At the beginning of Act III, the chorus tells us to “eke out our performance with your mind.” I read that as a post-modern woman. I take it as an invitation to free-associate. And here I go:
For starters, the first lines of Henry V took my breath away:
O for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention;
A kingdom for a stage. . .
When a play references the fact that the story is played out on a stage, I used to think, “Well, duh, that’s why I had a ticket.” But there’s something comforting about thinking of life as an under-rehearsed production. Community theater with real people flubbing their lines and improvising.
Then I got excited when I realized this play is about the battle of Agincourt which I am happy to announce that I have learned to pronounce correctly after mispronouncing it for years. It’s “ajin-cor,” not “agin-court.” As a collector of songs I have known about “The Agincourt Carol,” written in the 15th century to recount the 1415 battle of Agincourt. It’s one of the oldest recorded songs in western music. And by recorded I mean written down on paper, not put on a CD in someone’s basement studio.
It’s been tarted up with rhythm, meter and hymn texts like “A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing” by the Venerable Bede. (The Venerable Bede. I can’t believe we give people titles like this. It’s like conferring a Master of Divinity, as if theologians aren’t arrogant enough.) I always get a little frisson when I hear a hymn sung to this ancient (albeit tarted-up) melody. It’s a thread back to the past, connecting me with generations of other under-rehearsed productions.
They don’t sing “The Agincourt Carol” in Kenneth Branagh’s exuberant film of Henry V. Instead, as they are picking up their dead at the end of the battle they sing a contemporary choral piece by Patrick Doyle called “Non Nobis Domine” which was so moving, I played it over and over and just wept. The OK Chorale is so doing this piece fall quarter. I’ve already ordered the music.
Picking up their dead. War is just so damn stupid. I surprise myself when a movie like Greatheart gets me excited. I mean throbbing excited. This play, Henry V, about the muddy, bloody battle of Agincourt which the English won against the superior French forces moved me; and I found that disturbing. Henry’s speech, the St Crispian Day speech, just before the battle is so full of longing, pride, anticipation, and hope that I wanted to punch the air and yell. I wondered how I could get so excited about a war pep-talk when war is so stupid. I concluded that war is a displacement of something else, something that’s not stupid at all, something so precious we would kill for it.
In his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges says, “In the beginning war looks and feels like love. But unlike love, it gives nothing in return but an ever deepening dependence.” He also says that we will never find our purpose through war: “We will never discover who we are. We will fail to confront the capacity we all have for violence.”
That war gives some purpose to life is certainly a sobering indictment. Confronting our capacity for violence and understanding the emptiness we try to fill with war is a script that needs lots more rehearsal time.