Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

Nationalism in Henry V

  The upbeat patriotism of Harry and his Chorus are complicated by the fractious dialogue of a less than united nation

6 minute read

Near the end of Henry IV Part 2 comes a scene unlike any other in Shakespeare’s history plays: a king gives advice to a future king. Nowhere else in Shakespeare do we see an untroubled royal succession from father to son; nowhere else do we glimpse at the inner workings of monarchy in quite this way, a king revealing what he thinks is essential for a successful rule. He advises his son to ‘Busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels’. In other words, buy peace at home by fighting abroad – counsel that rings troublingly true to life even now. At the beginning of Henry V that is precisely what Harry and England set out to do.

Nowhere else in Shakespeare do we see an untroubled royal succession from father to son. Photographer: Tristram Kenton

Henry V has a nationalistic, triumphalist reputation. This is partly because of its production history: famously, Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film adaptation was bankrolled by the British government, as they felt the film would be a morale booster in the midst of the Second World War. But the reputation is also down to the play itself. The Chorus that opens the play and returns throughout to offer speeches that are half plot summary and half praise of King Harry and England itself seems to coat the play in a patriotic gloss. In our 2019 production, the creative team chose to disperse the Chorus’ speeches amongst the company. This way, the words came not from a separate narrator figure, but were placed in the mouths of the people of England and France who also undertake the actions they describe. Through the experiment, it was realised how subjective the Chorus’ speeches really are. Though they acquire an air of objective authority because of the way they appear on the page and often onstage – set apart, an observer – in fact, the Chorus’s words only sometimes match the events of the scenes that follow. The content is generally correct, but often the tone is not. Where the Chorus sees unity and undaunted courage, the scenes themselves express infighting, weakness, doubt.

‘Where the Chorus sees unity and undaunted courage, the scenes themselves express infighting, weakness, doubt’

As his father was careful to point out in his dying advice – and as both parts of Henry IV depict – Harry’s inheritance of the crown came on the back of years of unrest. But Harry’s efforts to unite a fractious country under the English banner are nearly pulled apart by the profound differences that exist between Englishmen of varying classes, backgrounds, and perspectives – and, of course, those in his ranks who aren’t English at all. Most prominent is Captain Fluellen, whose Welsh identity is carefully differentiated from that of the Englishmen he marches with, even as he eagerly claims King Harry, who was born in Monmouth, as one of his countrymen. It’s a particularly stark reminder of England’s still-incomplete efforts to absorb other countries under a single crown, even as Harry marches forth in hopes of another.

As his father was careful to point out in his dying advice, Harry’s inheritance of the crown came on the back of years of unrest. Photographer: John Haynes

Harry’s effort to claim France as his birthright – to enforce the unity of France and England – lays open their vast differences. Rather than an extension of England, when the English soldiers venture into France, they and we find a different world. In this world is another Shakespearean first, the only scene in his canon conducted entirely in a language besides English. It quickly becomes clear that to make France and England one will require more than comparing and justifying the lengthy genealogies of the play’s first scene – and the play’s last scene suggests that it will require more than brute conquest, too. They’ll have to learn how to speak to one another.

This wouldn’t seem to be a problem for King Harry, whose speeches are so famous. They are the other patriotic pole of the play: what the Chorus promises, Harry seems to deliver in his skilful battlefield orations. But while he can soar into spectacular heights of rhetoric and poetry in solo speeches, dialogue continually confounds him. What the Chorus frames as Harry wandering amongst his frightened troops to offer comfort before battle in actual fact becomes a troubling exchange, where lower-class soldiers challenge the moral foundations of Harry’s war in terms far more blunt than he was prepared to hear. Though the immediate conflict with the soldier, Williams, is ultimately resolved, Williams’ questions are never really answered.

Katherine is a bride of conquest no matter how successfully Harry flirts with her. Photographer: John Haynes

Equally indeterminate is Henry V’s final scene, where Harry and Princess Katherine of France undertake something that is often described as a courtship – though both of them know perfectly well that it’s not. Katherine is a bride of conquest no matter how successfully Harry flirts with her. Like Williams, her equivocal responses are never fully resolved, and never allow Harry or the audience to forget that she does not need to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because the answer has already been given on her behalf. But Harry asks her anyway. Just as the Chorus calls upon us to imagine oceans and battlefields, Harry asks Katherine to imagine a world where their marriage is a matter of choice – of love – and invites her to join him in it.

‘Harry asks Katherine to imagine a world where their marriage is a matter of choice’

The Chorus repeatedly frets that the patched-together imperfections of the playhouse will undermine the story of England that the play is attempting to tell. It fears that in fact, the theatre is fundamentally incapable of doing justice to the great men it tries to depict; that even this very play is ‘Mangling by starts the full course of their glory’. But the glory is mangled already. Far from being undermined by the necessities of theatre, Harry England suggests that such a chaotic, multi-voiced, effortful, hands-on art form is the only way the story of England can be told – that the playhouse is the place most like the country itself, ever seeking to shape and soothe and redefine itself, and ever undoing its own efforts. It’s where we come together to tell stories about ourselves, what we were, and are, and wish we were, and might yet be.

FINIS.