February 26, 2013

Henry V by William Shakespeare

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
This famous speech was one of my first encounters with Shakespeare in English. We had classes in the history of England at the University, and our professor tried to make it interesting and entertaining for everybody, so we read literature, watched films and illustrations, etc. It was fun, really! So when the topic was Henry V, we of course read St. Crispin’s Day speech. There were some difficult words, but the overall heroic mood of the battle was really well-depicted and helped to imagine how it was.

I'm not sure if I can judge the play from the point of view of historical accuracy, as I have forgotten a lot from those history classes, but as a reader I find the course of events rather believable. The French campaign description begins with the justification of the invasion that the English found for themselves. It was inheritance, of course - the question which was rather confusing at that time when it was not sure if women could inherit. But it seems that everybody, even the king, understood that it is only a pretext for the war. Henry was worried before the battle that so many people will die for an unfair cause. He was very fast in convincing himself and everybody else that it's no king's fault, though :) Such a nice demagogue!

The battles themselves are described rather ruthlessly both from the point of view of the common people and the nobility. The reader is shown no only what is going on in the middle of the field, with people fighting for their lives, but also what happens in the night before the final stand, when everybody prepares himself for the battle and waits for the break of day. And both English and French camps are shown, which helps compare and contrast them. Now, I think French are described rather unfairly, their nobility is shallow and vain in the play, they discuss only their horses and equipment, and they are ever so sure of their victory. This is biased of course, but I think Shakespeare had to be patriotic, as this was part of the Tudor propaganda. Besides, I think common people liked their villains to be really villain :)

Shakespeare understood the difficulty of portraying a historical event without decorations and special effects, so a special man, called "Choir" comes out on the stage in the beginning of each act and gives some perspective of the events. Moreover, he humbly asks the viewer's help in imagining real horses, thousands of people instead the couple impersonating them, etc. It makes such a bond between the writer and the reader, that makes it hard not to like the play. Especially when the writer cares for his public so much:
There is the playhouse now, there must you sit,
And thence to France shall we convey you safe
And bring you back, charming the narrow seas
To give you gentle pass; for, if we may,
We’ll not offend one stomach with our play.

This is my first Shakespeare history ever, and though I felt a bit overwhelmed with names and long speeches at times, I really liked it. It is believable, if not unbiased, and stirs the reader's imagination. Henry is also very likable and inspiring, so I was rather happy he found his love in the end. And I'll finish with the advice he gives to her when convincing her to marry him:
And while thou liv’st, dear Kate, take a fellow of plain and uncoined constancy, for he perforce must do thee right because he hath not the gift to woo in other places. For these fellows of infinite tongue, that can rhyme themselves into ladies' favors, they do always reason themselves out again. What? A speaker is but a prater, a rhyme is but a ballad, a good leg will fall, a straight back will stoop, a black beard will turn white, a curled pate will grow bald, a fair face will wither, a full eye will wax hollow, but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon, or rather the sun and not the moon, for it shines bright and never changes but keeps his course truly.
True, right?

1 comment:

  1. This is the second review of Henry V I've read, and after reading yours, I think I'm going to like it too!


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