"O for a Muse of Fire": Henry V and Plotted Self-Exculpation

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Whether this was true that so he spake, as one that gaue too much credit to foolish prophesies & vaine tails, or whether it was fained, as in such cases it commonlie happeneth, we leaue it to the aduised reader to iudge.

But yet to speake a truth, by his proceedings, after he had atteined to the crowne, what with such taxes, tallages, subsidies and exactions as he was constreined to charge the people with; and what by punishing such as mooued with disdeine to see him usurpe the crowne (contrarie to the oth taken at his entring into this land, upon his return from exile) did at sundrie times rebell against him, he wan himself more hatred, than in all his life time (if it had beene longer by manie years than it was) had beene possible for him to haue weeded out & remooued. (1)

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I

THE FIRST SCENE of Henry V presents us with a king who has set his own plots and plans, the most important feature of which is to shelter himself from responsibility. This sheltering is motivated by his desire to escape the effects of guilt, the shadow of blame or responsibility that would or might result from an action taken unsuccessfully. (2) The etiology of personal rule (the man may feel compelled to play at being king based on his personal experience) and structural rule (the man plays the king in the manner he sees as proper to a ruler) divide the possibilities of action between the king's two bodies. In Henry V's case, these two bodies are formed in the two preceding plays of the tetralogy through the constant tension between the prodigal Hal and the plotting Hal. Henry V yokes these two bodies together in the opening scene, but in this resolution of tension there is a crucial latent content that is key to understanding the new king, here and later: his "changed man" status is a fantasy or charade that allows Hal to displace threats to himself onto other, larger causes. Along the play's entire length Henry V counters every event that contains a potential setback or threat to his becoming "the mirrour of all Christian kings." In other words, the success of the play as a presentation of the paragon of kingship (legitimate, unifying, empire-building, and heroic, not to mention charming and eloquent) rides on Henry's ability to deflect and thereby control or manage all conflicts and challenges. The play does this by producing Henry not only as a product of the internal logic of the Henriad, but also as a function of the play's relationship to chronicle history.

My methodological schema for analyzing what I call Henry's strategy of plotted self-exculpation will make use of Harry Berger Jr.'s own exploration of the Henriad in Making Trifles of Terrors, where he adapts Stanley Cavell's concepts of guilt and shame. According to Cavell, "shame is the specific discomfort produced by the sense of being looked at, the avoidance of the sight of others is the reflex it produces. Guilt is different; there the reflex is to avoid discovery. As long as no one knows what you have done, you are safe; or your conscience will press you to confess it and accept punishment. Under shame, what must be covered up is not your deed, but yourself." (3) Cavell's work also led Berger to read Shakespeare's plays using what he calls "discourse networks," or, more specifically, ethical discourses, as a way of avoiding the so-called "epigenetic fallacy," that is, the fallacy of conducting an analysis of literary characters as if they were real people. The ethical discourses that characters deploy in their speeches or, we might say (borrowing from Wittgenstein) the language games they play are, to name the most important: those of the sinner, victim/revenger, villain, donor, saint, and hero/honor seeker. (4) When, for example, a character is describing his or her motives for behaving like a sinner, these motives are drawn from social and cultural discourses that enable such description and thus the particular role the character is assuming: the discourses comprise the world of a play. …