Nationalism in Henry V
The upbeat patriotism of Harry and his Chorus are complicated by the fractious dialogue of a less than united nation
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 the newly crowned King Henry V sets out to do.
The concept of the passage of power from one monarch to another rings a little differently these days. In the weeks surrounding the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, pundits fretted about what this change might mean for a nation that barely remembered life before Elizabeth. People sought symbolic expressions of an unfamiliar kind of grief: marmalade sandwiches at Buckingham Palace, and an impossibly long queue from Bermondsey to Westminster. One might understand why King Henry V suggested a war to take people’s minds off things. Big change leaves people with a lot of feelings around their country, and a savvy leader harnesses where those feelings get directed.
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. But though they acquire an air of objective authority because of the way they appear on the page and often onstage – set apart, an observer, as when Dominic Dromgoole directed the play here in 2012 – 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 is careful to point out in his dying advice, and as Henry V himself acknowledges in a dark night of the soul before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V’s inheritance of the crown comes on the back of years of unrest. Henry’s own 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 Henry, 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 Henry marches forth in hopes of another.
Henry’s effort to claim France as his birthright – to enforce the unity of France and England – likewise 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 Henry, whose speeches are so famous. They are the other patriotic pole of the play: what the Chorus promises, Henry 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 Henry 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 Henry’s war in terms far more blunt than he is prepared to hear. Though the immediate conflict with the soldier, Williams, is ultimately resolved, Williams’ questions are never really answered.
Equally indeterminate is Henry V’s final scene, where Henry 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 Henry 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. Change is coming, and the people need a symbol—those feelings need somewhere to go. Maybe the illusion of a love match is what it takes to convince the French to accept their new king.
‘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, Henry V 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.