Anniversary Post: King Henry V

Henry VOn this day in 1413, Henry V of England became king. He was king for less than ten years, due to his early death. And his reputation really is just due to the British victory at the Battle of Agincourt. Now that’s one of those great battles that sum up the stupidity of war. Reading Shakespeare, you would think that the British simply fought more bravely than the French. But if anything, they fought more cowardly. It was all due to the use of the long bow that allowed the victory. The vast majority of the British troops were archers. Bravery and resolve in such matters are fairy tales designed to convince men to get themselves killed for no good reason.

It is, then, perhaps appropriate that the great warrior king should die at the age of 36 of dysentery. You gotta love that!

Anyway, Shakespeare’s play Henry V is not bad. It’s interesting how different people at different times have performed it. It’s clear that Shakespeare meant it to be the jingoistic travesty that becomes clear if you sit down and read the whole thing. But normally when it is performed today, people finesse it into something anti-war, or at least nuanced. Which it isn’t. As I’ve argued for years: Shakespeare has benefited greatly by having 400 years of the best editors, directors, and actors finding meaning he never intended and probably would have found horrifying.

Still, we should mark this day of King Henry V by listening to Kenneth Branagh’s do the Saint Crispin’s Day speech. It’s great. It’s beautiful. His performance is wonderful. Yet what he says is vile. Pretty language should never be used to hide ugly ideas.

5 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: King Henry V

  1. Here’s a page of short comics from the wonderful Kate Beaton about Edward, the Black Prince. Yes, I know he’s not the right guy for today’s anniversary, but they were cut from the same cloth and they died the same way – which she touches on in the last panel.

    Hark, a vagrant

  2. I totally agree about the pointless of war but I have to disagree on a few points.

    – I am surprised that you don’t have more fondness for the poor English bowmen bringing down row after row of rich and privileged knights. This was a triumph of working class soldiers over elites who had every advantage in terms of weapons, armor, training, personal attendants and horses.

    – The long bow and superior terrain evened the odds but the English were still outnumbered severally and the victory hinged on lightly armored archers defeating heavily armored Knights on foot. The arrows and the mud killed and lamed thousands of horses but thousands of well armed and armored French knights advanced to hack down the English soldiers. Ultimately, the common soldiers was very brave that day.

    – Henry V is very important to History. If he does not win at Agincourt, there would not have been a generation of English rule over most of France. That rule allowed English nobles to grant themselves and their relatives more lands and titles. Eventually, the English realm in France all but disappears and elites, subject to Malthusian pressures, compete more fiercely for land back in England and thus we have the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors, the Stuarts and modern Anglo-Scottish-American History.

    – One of my professors argued that Shakespeare meant for the play to be ambiguous but leaning towards being pro war. From the outset the chorus directly asks you to completely suspend disbelief and believe exactly what you are told, which is how jingoistic politics works. Shakespeare’s Salic law sense shows that wars are fought for some of the most flimsy of reasons.

    • I do appreciate these things about the long bow. What I don’t appreciate is the idea that war is not mechanistic — that winning has to do with being true and brave.

      I think about the fact that if Hitler had never existed, I would never have existed. But that doesn’t make me think that Hitler wasn’t a bad guy.

      Shakespeare was such a suck-up to the power elite of his time that of course the play was jingoistic. The chorus is just saying, “We can’t show you battles on the stage, so you will have to imagine it yourself. This is actually a bit of a problem in the film because all of the action happens offstage. That’s fine when you are presenting a play, but it seems odd on film. Henry gives his big speech. And suddenly the battle is over and they are standing around asking if they have been defeated. (As if they wouldn’t know!)

      Anyway, sorry I can’t engage more. I’m running out of time!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *