"Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead": Henry V and the Politics of the English History Play

Article excerpt

"A PROPAGANDA-PLAY on National Unity: heavily orchestrated for the brass" was how A. P. Rossiter summed up Henry V in 1954. (1) The assumption that this play is complicit with the promonarchical, nationalist rhetoric of the Chorus, and with the particular myth of Englishness it propounds, has persisted. In recent years the most cogent articulation of this view has come from Richard Helgerson, who sees the play as the culmination of Shakespeare's gradual tightening of his "obsessive and compelling focus on the ruler" during the writing of his English history cycle, at the cost of occluding the interests of the ruled. In contrast to the historical dramas staged by the rival Henslowe companies, which, he argues, were less concerned with the "consolidation and maintenance of royal power" than with the plight of the socially inferior "victims of such power," Shakespeare's chronicle plays exorcised the common people from their vision of the nation with increasing ruthlessness:

 
   It is as though Shakespeare set out to cancel the popular ideology with 
   which his cycle of English history plays began, as though he wanted to 
   efface, alienate, even demonize all signs of commoner participation in the 
   political nation. The less privileged classes may still have had a place in 
   his audience, but they had lost their place in his representation of 
   England. (2) 

Helgerson explains this exclusionary process as part of a policy of self-gentrification pursued by Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain's Men--a determination to remove themselves as far as possible from the humble, "folk" origins of the theater they served. According to his reading, the banishment of Falstaff at the end of 2 Henry IV, along with the popular carnivalesque values he stands enacts this desire to be cleansed of the taint of vulgarity associated with the public stage. And in Henry V the purgation is completed. Despite the monarch's populist credentials earned in the Eastcheap tavern, the last play in the cycle confirms the "radical divorce ... between the King and his people," riding rough over the "dream of commonality, of common interests and common humanity, between the ruler and the ruled" that had figured so prominently in the popular imagination. (3)

On the face of it, Henry V offers ample evidence to validate the proposition that, of all Shakespeare's chronicle plays, this one is "closest to state propaganda," and that such proximity denies the "less privileged classes" a significant place in the nation. One need only cite the near-unanimous commitment to Henry's cause expressed by nobility and commoners alike (in a striking departure from the aristocratic factionalism and popular insurgence that had dominated the preceding plays in the cycle); the curiously muted treatment of those few dissenting voices that do make themselves heard; the play's protective attitude to its royal protagonist, whom it shield from overt inquiry into the legitimacy of his claim to the English as well as the French throne; and, last but not least, the decision to excise Falstaff, whose iconoclastic wit could, on past form, be trusted to play havoc with the nationalistic pieties and chivalric ideals promulgated in Henry V. In each of these respects, the play appears to be fully implicated in the Chorus's campaign to "coerc[e] the audience into an emotionally undivided response" in favor of the English monarch. (4) As the play's critical history attests, however, the pressures exerted by its patriotic rhetoric have not precluded more sceptical responses. What might be called the "Machiavellian" reading, first formulated by Hazlitt in 1817, has tended to focus on the gaps between Henry's laboriously constructed public image as "the mirror of all Christian Kings" and his manifest brutality and political opportunism, between the aggrandizing rhetoric of king and Chorus and what is actually shown on stage. …