"Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead": Henry V and the Politics of the English History Play
Thorne, Alison, Shakespeare Studies
"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. (5) Latterly, cultural materialists have argued that, in the act of rehearsing various discourses of national unity, the play unconsciously discloses the faultlines inherent in them. (6)
This essay concurs with such readings in arguing that Henry V distances itself from the Chorus's brand of patriotism, but it contends that the play does this not so much by incorporating vocal dissent or through inadvertent self-exposure, as by means of the ironic self-referentiality of its dramatic form. (7) As he reached the end of a period of working intensively within a given genre, Shakespeare habitually turned a searching eye on the structural conventions governing that genre. The last play in his second tetralogy is no exception. From beginning to end, Henry V is informed by an acute "metadramatic self-consciousness," which entails a close scrutiny of the discursive modes and conventions associated with the English chronicle play. (8) Through a process of internal mirroring, the ideology of this particular form is opened up to critical inspection in ways that expose both the latent ambiguities and the coerciveness implicit in its discourse of native heroism. The play also invites scrutiny of the rhetorical usage of history ascribed to the genre, by showing how the past is deployed to manipulate audiences (both on-and offstage) into identifying with a political enterprise founded upon a value system and material interests that must, in many cases, have been fundamentally at odds with their own. It is this provocative mixture of reflexivity and self-contradictoriness in the play's modes of address, I argue, which allows scope for a more complex, more divided affective response than that solicited by the Chorus. Indeed it is here that we should perhaps locate the primary source of the play's ideologically ambivalent effects. (9)
As it has become customary to note, the rhetorical energies of King Henry and the Chorus are ultimately directed at producing a collective sense of national identity. The linguistic ploys used in seeking to achieve this will be examined more closely in the second half of this essay. First, though, we need to consider what sorts of problems would have to be imaginatively negotiated when evoking the effects of nationhood on the public stage. It has long been accepted that the outpouring of historiographic texts, including chronicles and plays dealing with English history, in the closing decades of Elizabeth's reign played a crucial part in fostering national self-awareness. The late sixteenth-century vogue for historical drama is said to have "incited patriotic interest in England's past and participated in the process by which the English forged a sense of themselves as a nation"; more specifically, it "provided a `myth of origin' for the emerging nation," whose people "learned to know who they were by seeing what they had been." (10) In Henry V the appeal to history as a means of exciting jingoistic fervor is made unusually explicit. But which version of the nation does the play invite us to endorse? And should we assume the efficacy of its patriotic appeal as given in advance, bearing in mind that the play's success depended on its capacity to engage all sections of the socially heterogeneous audiences that patronized the public playhouses of the period, not merely a privileged minority? (11) For what must be emphasized at the outset is the integral involvement of the lower orders in the "cultural project of imagining an English nation." So far from being effaced, demonized, or even confined to mere tokenism (as Helgerson and others claim), popular participation is shown by Shakespeare's English history cycle to be an essential component in the making of the modern political nation. Henry V, in particular, vividly discloses the extent to which the monarchy's imperialistic exercise in nation-building depends upon the active collaboration of the common populace--in the context not only of the dramatic fiction itself but of the theater in which that fiction was staged and consumed.
Twentieth-century political theorists and historians of nationalism are generally agreed that the emergence of the modern nation-state presupposed the existence of a broad popular mandate, though they differ sharply in their dating of this event. (12) Expanding on his influential definition of the nation-state as an "imagined community," Benedict Anderson relates the rise of this sociopolitical formation to the decline of the "divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm" and its displacement by a horizontal sense of community strong enough to engender feelings of kinship between complete strangers and across existing social divisions. The nation is thus
imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible ... for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings. (13)
Others have echoed Anderson's insistence that the mere fact of social stratification need be no hinderance to conceiving of the nation as a community of free and essentially equal individuals with the right, in principle at least, to participate in political decision-making. Arguing specifically for the sixteenth-century origins of English nationhood and nationalism in general, Liah Greenfeld finds that this grew out of an alliance of interests between the monarchy and the common people--the very alliance that, in the civil upheavals of the next century, it would help to destroy. As "an important symbol of England's distinctiveness and sovereignty," the crown provided an initial focus for nationalist sentiment; conversely, the Tudor monarchs, who "were time and again placed in a position of dependence on the good will of their subjects," found it expedient to support this burgeoning national consciousness. (14) Claire MacEachern similarly holds that the Tudor system of monarchical government was not incommensurable with a genuine belief in a "corporate political identity." Existing as an affective utopian structure, this belief, she suggests, was rooted in a sense of intimacy or fellow-feeling between the populace and the personified institutions of the state, concentrated in the person of …
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Publication information: Article title: "Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead": Henry V and the Politics of the English History Play. Contributors: Thorne, Alison - Author. Journal title: Shakespeare Studies. Publication date: Annual 2002. Page number: 162+. © 1998 Associated University Presses. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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