Henry V

by Jamie Lutton

 It is hard to believe that it is 2013 already. This Feb I will have been selling books on Capitol Hill since 1987 (starting on a cart in the Broadway Market).

Why did I become a bookseller?

I early on turned to reading what my parents liked, as they were eager to share their interests, and that is what they liked to do the most; read the classics and history.

My Dad used to read passages from Henry V. to me now and then, when I was a teenager (mother liked reading  poetry to me,too. but her tastes ran to Browning, Frost and John Donne).

Daddy would undertake to do so with great seriousness, as if he was reading from the Bible. He read to me as he had been reading the passages himself, and wanted to hear them aloud. As if it was important for me to listen, learn, absorb the ringing passages.

He would read the first prologue of this play, then usually the prologue before the battle of Agincourt. He esp. liked to read the speech that the King gave just before the battle. He read to me as he had been reading the passages himself, and wanted to hear them aloud.

Before  I became a bookseller, much later, while I was unemployed as an adult, I remembered his great passion for this play, and read it carefully, and began to memorize the major speeches. It was a bad time for me; this was before I was a bookseller.  I could not work as I was in a deep depression. Memorizing this and other poetry helped focus my mind and distract me from my troubles.

In 1989, the film Henry V came out.  I had been selling books in the Broadway Market for about two years at that point; and I was notorious as a self-styled expert on this play.   I happily walked several customers through the play, and explained the plot and historical background as best I could. It was great fun to pace back and forth and read aloud from this play. Have you ever read aloud a good poem, or speech? Try it with your favorite, some time. You may find yourself enjoying the experience as much as singing in the shower, crossed with being on a stage. Poetry can flow like music, when it is very good.

Twenty-four years have passed, and I have not stopped reading and rereading this play by Shakespeare. (though I have spent time with others).

When I sell Shakespeare to my customers, I usually start off beginners with Macbeth, as that play is easier to read, more like a thriller or novel. The 'weird sisters' (the three witches) have wonderful speeches, as does Macbeth.

But for outstanding beauty and majesty, the prologues and the speeches in Henry V are even better.

This play, styled a history, has great tragic elements, more evident to our eyes, living in a time that has seen endless warfare for over 10 years.  That this play glorifies war and a warlike king is one thing, but the author does not neglect to give a voice to a despairing soldiers in particular, a 'William', who voices worries we all have about 'just wars'.

When Shakespeare wrote this in 1599 England was at the end of it's Elizabethan age.. Though there had been a Viet Nam like war with the Irish, and English armies had been in thwarted invasions with the Protestant pretender to the French throne, the English homeland had not seen either war or the religious persecutions that had plagued the land in the era of Queen Mary a few decades before. The economy was strong. A new form of entertainment, the secular play, had become more and more popular.

The monarch of the time, Queen Elizabeth, was in her old age and had been on the throne for decades.  This was a time of great and increasing wealth of the English people, growing literacy and a fair amount of personal freedom and new ideas. The New World beckoned the way Space beckons to us now, a great and glorious unknown to be explored.

The English people looked back to Henry V as a great king; he lived in a time just far back enough to be remembered by the people, but was mythologized, as we remember Lincoln and George Washington. 

The events of this play surround the historical battle of Agincourt in 1415.  But, there were problems with Henry V's kingship known to playgoers of the time. He was the son of a usurper; his father having killed his cousin to seize the throne. Queen Elizabeth faced numerous attempts to kill her during her reign, and there were several attempted revolutions.  This play was written only a few years before her death. So the play had to show a prince with humility, knowing that his crown was won by murder by his father.

What makes this play riveting, here, is the powerful and poetic way the Prologue, like a Greek chorus, sets the stage and lures the reader or the viewer to see the great events that will follow.

When I began to type this, I knew the first part by heart, I have read it so many times.  I will alter the punctuation and translate obscure words as I go, to try to clarify meaning. But this is poetry, and best recited aloud.

An empty stage, with one man there, steps forward and recites this to the audience, and the reader:

Oh, for a muse of fire, that could assend the brightest heaven of invention.
  Princes to act, and monarchs to behold our swelling scene. Then shall the warlike Harry, like himself, assume the Port (seat) of Mars, and at his heels, leash'd  in like hounds, would fire, sword and famine crouch for employment.

    But Pardon, and gentles all, The flat unraised spirits on this on this unworthy scaffold to bring forth So great an object? Can this cockpit (he indicates the stage around him) hold the vasty fields of France?  Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques (cannons) That did affright the air at Agincourt? O, pardon! since a crooked figure may attest in little place a million;  And let us, ciphers to this great accompt (attempt),   On your imaginary forces work. 

       Suppose within the girdle of these walls are now confined two mighty monarchies,  whose high upreared and abutting front the perilous narrow ocean parts asunder;  piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.  Into a thousand parts divide on man, And make imaginary puissance (power); 

          Think when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;   for 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,  turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour-glass: for the which supply, admit me Chorus to this history who prologue-like your humble patience pray, gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

On a humorous note, the imaginary  horses of this play were carried down as a tradition with British filmmakers; recall that when Monthy Python and the Holy Grail film was made, they used cocoanuts clattering in the hands of the actors,  to indicate horses, to save money.

This play can be read as a war pageant and as an-anti war play one and the same time.  The heroics of King Henry are offset by the suffering and death of several poor soldiers and a boy, characters carried over from earlier plays about this King.

       For this play is a sequel, the last of three about this character. Shakespeare wrote two wildly popular plays about 'Prince Hal', Henry lV , and Henry lV ll, which featured the infamous Falstaff and his rogue band, with the Prince keeping company with cut-purses and drunken brawlers. However, this play, meant to showcase the greatest upset victory England ever experienced, is both more serious and more tragic.

   The king, now mature,who is visibly goaded into going to war by English priests of the Catholic Church (an easy villain, as the England watching this play had been Protestant for 60 years) and the French prince early in the play. The king predicts great bloodshed because of this war. In fact, the play is so bloody that traditionally one major scene is cut from it whenever it is performed, the one where the the king in violation of the rules of war, orders the slaughter all of his French prisoners, in the midst of battle.

The battle itself is won, both in history and in this play, by the famous long-bowman of England, who even while outnumbered some 3 to one, overcame the crossbows and swords of the French army. The cannon mentioned in the prologue do not make much of an appearance; as this battle was before accurate cannon had been invented. The war was won because Henry was a better tactician than his opponents, he knew how to corral his opponents and slaughter them in the field.

A reader who wishes to tackle this play should leaf through a copy, and read all the prologues, and king's speeches, to get an idea of what they will watch when they see it performed, or if they rent the movie. The 1989 film version, though not perfect, is a pretty good production of this masterpiece.

What makes this play great is that it has two meanings at once. It is a war pageant, and also a display of the suffering of men at war.

In the hands of good actors, the pathos of the suffering comes out clearly. One speech, very likely meant to be the voice of Shakespeare, a common soldier called 'William', the night before the battle of Agincourt questions thus:

   But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind  them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it  will be a black matter for the king that led them to it (damnation); whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection (impossible).

These  words are ones that military minds and commanders should reflect on, when they send men to fight in any age, in any time. Shakespeare, writing a popular play about a popular battle, one that the English in the end did win, remarks even here about the morality of war. His original audience had not seen war for decades, but could well shudder at the fate of the poor men, both French and English, who suffered and perished on stage. . 

To better understand the historical battle of Agincourt, there is a magnificent history book by John Keegan called The Face of Battle, wherein he compares Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme, all major battle where English armies fought.  

I often recommend this book, along with the play Henry V, for readers who are tired of bestsellers, as this play is a springboard to the amateur study of Shakespeare, and the amateur study of history, military or not.

I am available for discussion of this Shakespeare play, and his others. Drop by anytime and we can talk about it further.

Jamie Lutton owns TWICE SOLD TALES at the corner of  Harvard and Denny and writes in the blog Booksellers versus Bestsellers.