Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Henry V - War in France

When I first discovered that the Pop-Up Globe was coming to Melbourne my initial thoughts where that I was only going to go and see Much Ado About Nothing, namely because that was one play that I hadn't seen. However, one became two (Othello), and after seeing Othello I realised that the only version of Henry V that I have seen was a modernised version that was basically one long play within a play (and you can see my post on that particular production here). What I hadn't seen was a production that had been performed using traditional costume, and this is what this particular version was offering. Further, I have now noted that they have extended their season into January (and the into February), which means that I will probably end up going to go and see As You Like It as well (and I a curious to see if return to Australia next year with the current production that is being performed in Auckland).

The thing with this production is that it is an all male theatre troop, which adds to the authenticity of the production, but it also adds to the amusement as well. This current season has two troops performing: the Queens Men, which is a mixed troop and they did Othello and Much Ado About Nothing; and the King's Men, which is an all male troop, and they are doing Henry V and As You Like It. Mind you, this style adds to the amusement value of the whole spectacle, and differs substantially from the original Globe where women were basically banned from appearing on stage. These days having female actors is part and parcel of the theatre scene and nobody really thinks anything of it, but back then, to have a female on stage would have been scandalous.

A part of me is tempted to write about the battle of Agincourt, the battle which the play is focused on, especially since I visited the site when I was in France. However, instead I will leave it for a separate post and in this post simply focus on the play. The play itself does stand out in that it is probably one of Shakespeare's  more well known histories, and is also the reason that the Battle of Agincourt is actually still remembered to this day, but then again the play itself was probably looking back at a time when England practically ruled France, and served as a reminder of a time when the English army literally annihilated the French. The other thing with the play is that it was the play that won Brannaugh an academy award and proved to the world that Shakespeare can be successfully put onto the cinema.

Before I get into the play another thing that came to mind as I was watching this performance was that it sort of reminded me of World War I. I guess the reason for that is that I am currently read Robert Grave's Goodbye to All That, and the main focus of that play is on his experience in World War I. As I thought about it though, other than being in France, there is really nothing all that similar between the two wars. The wars of Henry V were actually quite quick, at least where this period is concerned, and the armies quite mobile. This was certainly not the case in World War I. Further, in this period, the armies would simply wander around in a group, and tended to be somewhat smaller, and battles would start up when they happened to run into each other.

Nobles and Commoners

The one interesting thing in this play is that we have two different classes of people - the nobility and the commoners. One should remember that this follows on from Henry IV, and for those familiar with the play, one will remember that in the first part Henry is actually spending is time with a group of rabble rousers, led by the infamous Falstaff. At the beginning of the play we learn that Falstaff has died, and for those of us familiar with the earlier play, we will notice that some of the characters have followed us over. However, one should remember that at the end of Henry IV part II, after Harry becomes kings, he distances himself from his former life, and even openly rejects Falstaff.

This carries over into this play, particularly when one of the soldiers steals a worthless crucifix from a chapel. There is a push to have the soldier punished for such a minor infraction, but there is a principle at play here - the soldier must be punished, and must be punished to the full extent of the law, which means execution. There are no ifs, buts, or exceptions. The thing is that this is a question of discipline, order, and honour. Henry's army is not a bunch of bandits storming across the country raping and pillaging, but rather an army of Englishmen conquering France.

Then we have the eve of the battle, where Henry disguises himself as a commoner and wonders among the troops. This scene was actually mentioned in an episode of Star Trek, and is important because the king is actually going amongst his men, and attempting to connect with them to know how they feel on the eve of the battle. Wars in many cases are disputes between kings and princes who use their pawns to do the fighting. Henry is different because he understands that his men, even though they are commoners, are still men, and that they have lives, and joys, and fears. In a way this also reflects back on his time with Falstaff because to him they are more than just dirty commoners, they are real men.

This is probably why, in this play, we have Henry charging into the thick of the battle. He isn't a general, or commander that hangs back in a tent, protected from the battle, where his soldiers and knights do all the fighting. No, instead he is right in the thick of it, the first up the ladder at Harfleur, and charging into the fray at Agincourt, ready to take on the biggest and baddest knight there is. Sure, we also have the longbowmen, who actually played an incredibly important part in the battle, but while the two performances that I have seen remind us of this, in reality what Shakespeare is interested in here is the nature of the king, and a reminder of the people of England at the time of a period now long gone.

The Salic Law

There is something of interest raised at the beginning of the play, which in a way is justifying the invasion of France - the illegitimacy of the French King. Mind you, this sort of goes against certain things in that at the time the play was performed there was a woman on the throne of England, but this isn't what we are necessarily concerned with here. What Shakespeare was doing was constructing a fiction that gave Henry the right to go to war against France - that the king could only come down the male line, not the female, and the fact that this hadn't happened in France undermined the right of the current king to sit on the throne.

Yet there could have been a number of reason why Henry actually went to war, and this salic law is little more than a pretext. Mind you, it isn't as if people haven't used dodgy pretexts to go to war before, or since, but while there are some instances where war is an unfortunately necessity, it many cases it simply comes from the greed of certain parties. Well, one could easily argue that the Napoleonic Wars were all defensive wars on the part of Napoleon, and ever since I heard that argument, my opinion of those wars changed substantially.

However, in Henry's case the reason for war seems to be two fold. Okay, one could argue that this is simply just one battle in a war that lasted over a hundred years, but then if one falls into that trap, how long, in reality, did this war really last, and why is it that it starts with Edward III, and finishes with Henry VI? Could it not have begun a lot earlier, and finished a lot later? Mind you, one interesting thing from Robert Graves is the reaction of the French in the Pas de Calais during World War I. Basically they were concerned that the British would never leave. That reaction almost brought to mind this period of history, and makes me wonder whether people really do have incredibly long memories.

So, there was the point of expanding English territory, and we should remember that at this time England did actually control quite a lot of France. The other point was to solidify his rule, and what better way for a strong king to stake his claim than to go to war. Mind you, this is always a risky thing to do, because if we remember back to Richard I, we note that he went to war in Ireland and returned to discover that somebody had taken his throne. However there is a difference - here Henry uncovers some traitors, and instead of dily dallying around he has then executed, straight away - Henry doesn't muck around.

Borrowed from The Internet Shakespeare

The Massacre

This mucking around leads us to the alleged war crime committed by Henry after the battle. What is interesting is that at one part of the play he commands his soldiers to treat the French with respect, and to not go around robbing like they are a bunch of bandits. Fair enough, because he is leading an army, not a bunch of thugs, and an army is meant to have discipline. Actually, this is something that is a little odd because there really wasn't much in the way of standing armies during those periods - in this time if a King needed an army he would raise one among his lords and peers.

However, we suddenly see a different side to Harry after victory at Agincourt. All of a sudden he orders all of the prisoners killed. This does raise the question of whether he actually committed a crime. The thing is that back then there was no such thing as the Geneva Convention. In fact there was no such thing as rules for war -  they didn't come about until after the Thirty Years War. That meant that prisoners didn't have to be treated humanely. Actually, prisoners were quite valuable in that one could get a ransom for them. Yet what about the average soldier, what if they were captured? Well, if they were peasants then there is probably little that one could actually do with them, and they were no doubt a burden to the army.

Yet, it also sees to be to be another sign of his complete dominance over the French. In fact the whole play seems to revolve around Henry and his character. He was a strong king, one that took England to war against their eternal enemy and won, but not only won, but won convincingly. What could be happening here is that Henry is reinforcing his power over the French by reminding them of where they stand. Remember we are still living in Medieval Europe here, so the humaine treatment of prisoners didn't exist, and even then peasants were people in the same sense that the nobility was. 

Sweet Catherine

I want to say a few things about Catherine, which actually seems a little odd - sort of like it was tacked on at the end. Basically Catherine is the daughter of the King of France (who appeared on stage in a wheelchair, which sat in contrast with Henry, who was young and fit), and appears a couple of times, particularly in one rather baudy scene where she is attempting to learn English. In fact this one scene really did play to the lowest common denominator in the use of the double-entendres, particularly where a French women, who cannot speak English, is attempting to learn the language, and instead swearing profusely.

This particular scene is of interest to me (and for those who are interested, it is Act III, Scene IV) because it allows me to see how French was spoken back in those days. Mind you, when I first read the play all those years ago in University (I was writing an essay on the Hundred Years War, and wanted to use Henry V as a source, not that that was what was asked, but then again I was a classic for writing stuff that had nothing to do with the essay question) this scene went over my head, namely because I didn't know French, nor did I understand the double-entendres. However, to assist the audience see the humour, the King's Men changed it slightly so that we could see how bawdy it actually was.

Anyway, I will include a section for your benefit (even though I have linked it above):

Alice, tu as ete en Angleterre, et tu parles bien le langage.

Un peu, madame.
Je te prie, m'enseignez: il faut que j'apprenne a 
parler. Comment appelez-vous la main en Anglois?

La main? elle est appelee de hand.
De hand. Et les doigts?
Les doigts? ma foi, j'oublie les doigts; mais je me 
souviendrai. Les doigts? je pense qu'ils sont 
appeles de fingres; oui, de fingres.
La main, de hand; les doigts, de fingres. Je pense 
que je suis le bon ecolier; j'ai gagne deux mots 
d'Anglois vitement. Comment appelez-vous les ongles?
Les ongles? nous les appelons de nails.

De nails. Ecoutez; dites-moi, si je parle bien: de 
hand, de fingres, et de nails.
C'est bien dit, madame; il est fort bon Anglois.
Dites-moi l'Anglois pour le bras.
And for completeness sake, here is a video I found on Youtube:

Then there is the final scene, which is probably a good place to finish off. Here we have Henry, who has convincingly defeated the French, sitting at the top of the world. The catch is that he hasn't got the girl, so what better thing than to take the daughter of the French king as his wife. Well, in reality she would have no choice, but this is Shakespeare - he actually gives her a choice, and Henry has to convince her to become his wife. The catch is that she cannot speak English, and he can't speak French. Quite probably most of the audience couldn't speak French either, so this production took the easy way out and had her speak English.

In the end, it came down to the fact that we knew that both actors were male, it is just that one of them was dressed up as a woman, so the kiss at the end of the play was, well, amusing. Okay, a number of years back it probably would have been horrifying to some on the audience, but these days, particularly with the legalisation of Same Sex Marriage in Australia, it is nothing (though it is still rather amusing).

Still, I did quite like how Catherine would simply wonder around the stage, as if she were basically in her own little world, and was only dragged into the reality of the play once Henry had conquered France.

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1 comment:

  1. The Band of Brothers speech is still badass. I'm thinking I have seen this one live at least twice. My wife has been attending the Utah Shakespeare Festival the last several years, and she has gotten to see the histories in order, starting with Richard III. I believe they are doing some version of Henry VI this year.