“Close the wall up with our English dead”: does Shakespeare’s Henry V actually problematise Agincourt?
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that shed his blood with me
Shall be my brother…
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurst they were not here;
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day” (Henry V, IV.iii.60-69)
First penned in the year 1599, it is these words that flood the internet and social media every 25th October – though this year more than most. The pervasive memory of the English victory at the 1415 Battle of Agincourt is, for many, best realised in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and particularly in the hallowed words of the eponymous king’s Saint Crispin’s day speech in the play’s fourth act. Made famous in most recent years by Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hiddleston, the speech is seen to epitomise the triumphant heroism of the play’s depiction of Henry V’s French campaign in the popular imagination. Literary and historical scholarship on the play, however, has rejected this one-dimensional perception. The play’s opening Chorus (a device employed uniquely in Henry V) may announce “the swelling scene” to come but the following acts leave us potentially perturbed by the supposedly perfect king’s harsh actions towards the peaceful people of Harfleur, and his carelessness for the lives of the common men fighting in his army. All this raises the question: exactly what view did Shakespeare intend to give of Agincourt in Henry V, and can we really read the play as an unproblematic celebration of the victory? As shall be seen, an awareness of the play’s contemporary context may provide us with some clues.
‘Rabbits and Ducks’
In his seminal article of 1977 Norman Rabkin argued that – much like the famous rabbit-duck illusion – Henry V in fact encompassed “two different directions”: the first being the traditional view of Henry as the perfect king and war hero; the second being the darker suggestion of Henry as a war criminal, deplorable in both his motivations and methods. These two views, Rabkin noted, cannot be seen simultaneously, though we inevitably notice one interpretation before we notice the other. Although the play has continued to be passed off by scholars like E.M.W. Tillyard as “idealized and patriotic,” shallow and pandering to the desires of the groundlings, the exact opposite has also been claimed. Gerald Gould made considerable waves in 1919 when he insisted that Shakespeare must have truly despised the Agincourt victor, and that he was in fact writing a deeply ironic satire on patriotism and the glories of war. This lack of consensus in the criticism of the twentieth century has led to claims that the play is deliberately ambiguous; that it holds no single vision or agenda concerning the history it dramatizes. The only way to bring together these seemingly opposing views, in fact, may be to consider how they interact within the play’s own historical context.
The legacy of Agincourt in the late sixteenth century
When discussing the significance of Shakespeare’s History Plays, critic John Dover Wilson argued for the importance of acknowledging the “watershed” moments in history as perceived by Shakespeare’s contemporary audiences. There is no doubt that with Agincourt less than two centuries in the past it was still considered a momentous victory in the history of England. It was memorialised throughout the sixteenth century in literature, plays, and balladry. The chronicle tradition, carried on by writers such as Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed in the mid-century, helped to crystallise Henry V’s reputation: Holinshed described the king as “a prince whome all men loved… a capteine against whome fortune never frowned, nor mischaunce once spurned.” The long-held notion that the victor of any battle had God on his side certainly worked in Henry’s favour here, as well as the revival in the late-Tudor court of an aristocratic chivalric mood. ‘The Agincourt Carol’, for example, spoke of the “grace and myth of chivalry” shown by Henry V and his men in battle. The abundance of laudatory literature on the Plantagenet king was influenced largely by the considerable interest paid to his legacy by Henry VIII, who had attempted to emulate the achievement of Agincourt in his own (far less successful) forays into French territory in 1513. At around that time an anonymous translation of Tito Livio’s biography of Henry V hoped in its preface that Henry VIII might “attaine to like honour, fame, and victorie” if he were to “conform himself” to the “life and manners” of his “noble progenitor.” Given this cultural prevalence – backed by royal patronage – and the context of the play’s position within the second tetralogy (which up until this point had alluded to a redemptive arc for Prince Hal) it is likely that the original audience of Henry V had expectations of a heroic and chivalric epic play. What they got, however, was not so straightforward.
It has already been mentioned that Holinshed’s Chronicles helped seal Henry V’s reputation for the people of the sixteenth century. In fact Holinshed was one of Shakespeare’s main sources, and for the most part the material is identical. One notable exception to this is the scene of the play in which Henry shockingly threatens to bring “impious War” against the “fresh fair virgins” and “flow’ring infants” of the French town of Harfleur. In Holinshed the king was open to negotiation, “contented to grant them truce.” This alteration – fabrication, even – on Shakespeare’s part is puzzling, for its only real effect is to problematize and undermine the campaign surrounding Agincourt.
What we might refer to as the ‘traditional’ line of this story is told by the play’s Chorus, the purpose of which seems to be to narrate events in the way that the audience would have expected to see them. The collusion between the predominant narrative of Henry V – whose “knightlie acts and resplendishinge vertues”, one of his earliest biographers tells us, “shalbe renowned through out the worlde” – and the Chorus’s presentation of the “warlike Harry” is evident. At the beginning of Act IV the Chorus informs us that on the eve of the battle itself “every wretch, pining and pale before, plucks comfort” from Henry’s very presence, but as the rest of the act plays out we find that many of his men are doubtful of their cause, remarking “there are few die/well that die in a battle.” This gulf is widened further when one notes that Henry, despite referring to his comrades as a “band of brothers” only moments before, remarks casually that “none else of name” have perished; a considerable distance from his earlier sentiments of “fellowship” and the sharing of glory.
The Chorus plays another key role in the play’s epilogue, noting sombrely that after Henry V’s death his infant son’s protectors “lost France, and made his England bleed.” Thus the closing message of the play – which, incidentally, serves as the last play in a sequence of Histories which started with the funeral of Henry V in Henry VI Part I – hints at the transient nature of the victory at Agincourt. Take that scene out and you have quite a different play, as shown in The Globe’s 2013 production starring Jamie Parker. With the epilogue included, and with the play’s consistent undermining of the traditional rose-tinted view of Agincourt, it is difficult from a modern perspective not to be left with a lingering sense of doubt concerning the overall direction of the piece. Historians have shown, however, that the themes portrayed here run much deeper.
One would argue, along with Joel Altman, that it was not possible to be ambiguous about the subject of war in the 1590s. The age of Shakespeare was a martial one; the defeat of the Armada in 1588 and the on-going campaign to subdue Catholics in Ireland are likely to have been fresh in the minds of a wide proportion of theatre-goers. It is this latter context to which the play itself alludes: the Chorus of Act V openly compares Henry V’s reception back into London with the anticipated return of “the general of our gracious Empress /… from Ireland coming.” This ‘general’ was the Earl of Essex, whose defeat in Ireland was looking increasingly certain by 1599. This was a campaign so costly in terms of taxation that it quickly became, in Altman’s words, “the most hated war of the era.” Historians and literary critics alike have argued that Shakespeare’s Henry V was probably designed to draw the audience in to an imperialist mindset, its message “mighty cheering” under the circumstances. To Altman, Henry V is clearly let off the hook for any potential war crimes by the audience’s inevitable hostility towards the French army. It could alternatively be said, however, that the dramatizing of a problematic, imperial conflict on foreign territory – in fact, the most famous conflict on foreign territory in recent history – was intended to address actual contemporary concerns in a cathartic way.
This is arguable because of the questionable nature with which Shakespeare imbues Henry’s French campaign right from the very opening scene. We find out almost immediately that Henry’s war is being engineered by leading members of the clergy in order to distract their prince from accepting a bill that would “drink deep” from the Church’s coffers. It is the Archbishop of Canterbury who then goes on to almost comically outline Henry’s outrageously detailed “true title… to the crown and seat of France” – a title built on the outright rejection of Salic Law and very little else. The sheer sacrifice that the campaign entails is hinted at more than once, not just in the comments of the common men on the eve of battle but also in Henry’s order to “close the wall up with our English dead.”
In the 1590s the main issue of the day concerned whether or not a Christian state could justly make war at all. The consensus of many Churchmen was that “war may be undertaken, but only for a good cause.” Shakespeare’s alteration of his source material and deliberate contrasting between the Chorus’s ‘official’ line and the actual events of the play problematize a reading of Agincourt here as a just war. What Henry V seeks to demonstrate is that realistically there is no just war; even Agincourt, the ‘watershed’ English victory, could never be entirely just, nor particularly lasting.
To return to Rabkin’s rabbit/duck analogy, one can say that Henry V is not as deliberately ambiguous as it may first appear; at least, not in the sense that “we cannot experience alternative readings at the same time.” Once we have seen both the negative and the positive readings of war it is impossible to turn back. We must instead perceive the patriotism and the propaganda (presented by the Chorus and in the speeches of Henry V) as well as the underlying concerns about the social effects of warfare as part of one image rather than as two conflicting ideas. The audience expectations and pre-conceptions of Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt were very particular in 1599: popular culture had for most of the previous century depicted these events as miraculous, heroic, and inspirational. Immediate reactions to the play were somewhat muted; certainly the play did not achieve quite the same success as Shakespeare’s similar plays in terms of printing runs in folio editions. In more recent years – particularly in the fraught total war years of the twentieth century – producers have only been able to maintain the patriotic side of the narrative by airbrushing the more negative parts out altogether. In its contemporary context of the publically unpopular and conspicuously unsuccessful Ireland campaign the play leans more towards the real, with the ideal line serving only to exacerbate the notion that war – even Agincourt – is not as glorious as it might sometimes seem.
Written by Laura Flannigan
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