Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Ambiguities of Honour: A Response to Carrie Pestritto's "Outlooks on Honor in Henry V and Julius Caesar"*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Ambiguities of Honour: A Response to Carrie Pestritto's "Outlooks on Honor in Henry V and Julius Caesar"*

Article excerpt

"Caesar was ambitious, and Brutus is an honourable man" (Julius Caesar 3.2.78-100). 1 Are things really as simple as that? If we follow Carrie Pestritto's arguments in her contribution on the concepts of honour as manifested in two Shakespearean plays, Mark Antony's ironical words should be taken at face value. According to Pestritto, Brutus's honour gives him "an almost Christ-Uke aura" (64), as Shakespeare's characterization foUows Plutarch's "Christ-Uke, pure image of Brutus" (66). This concept of honour, Pestritto argues, contrasts with that of King Henry in Henry V, who "is of dubious moraUty" (63). Brutus, she says, "will only rigidly adhere to the straightforward, virtuous path," while "Henry V does not care what methods he must use to gain honor: sinful or ethical" (66).

As far as Henry V is concerned, Pestritto's argumentation is quite convincing. Honour, as it is understood in his Agincourt speech (4.3.18-67; 22, 28, 31), is indeed "something that one must fight others to win" (65) and is therefore highly ambiguous from a moral point of view. The negative aspects of war and bloodshed are given ample scope in this play. Henry's admonition to the archbishop of Canterbury (1.2.13-32) shows that he is aware of the "waste in brief mortality" (1.2.28) brought about by war, as are his night-time reflections after having assumed a disguise and talked to his soldiers In scene 4.1. In his Harfleur speech the King emphasizes the cruel aspects of fighting, e.g. when asking his soldiers to "close the waU up with our English dead" (3.1.2). War crimes appear to be inevitable, such as the killing of the boys guarding the luggage, "expressly against the law of arms" (4.7.1-2).2 Most notably, the play does not end with the English gaining honour on the battlefield: it may well be the King's bad conscience which makes him forbid his soldiers to "boast" of their victory (4.8.116) and to give thanks to - or shift responsibility to - God instead (4.8.112-24). These restrictions on celebrating leave room to the final act which is devoted to reconciUation and peace.3

Pestritto's point can also be strengthened by an examination of the term "honour" as used in the play. It is amazing how often honour is spoken of in contexts where dramatic irony is apparent: At the very beginning of the play the archbishop of Canterbury complains about a biU which would appropriate church funds to the maintenance of many earls, knights and esquires "to the King's honour" (1.1.12). After the discovery of a conspiracy against him, the King reminds his followers that he was prepared "to furnish him," i.e. the chief conspirator, the Earl of Cambridge, "with aU appertinents/ Belonging to his honour" (2.2.87-88). The French "constable" exhorts his compatriots "for honour of our land,/ Let us not hang like roping icicles/ Upon our houses' thatch" (3.5.22-24), as the French soldiers were obviously prone to. The French King's exhortation to his princes to "with spirit of honour edged/ More sharper than your swords hie to the field" (3.5.38-39) wiU obviously prove fruitless. After the battle of Agincourt Pistol, not distinguished for vaUant fighting, complains about getting old: "Old I do wax, and from my weary limbs/ Honour is cudgeUed" (5.1.85-86). Even the words of the Chorus, usually taken to be unambiguously 'pro-war/ could provoke second thoughts about honour as an end in itself: "[...] honour's thought/ Reigns solely in the breast of every man" (2.ch.3-4). Is it really a sensible course of action to "sell the pasture now to buy the horse" (2.ch.5); wiU all of Henry's foUowers be able to win "crowns and coronets" (2.ch.l0)? Henry's Agincourt speech is about the only other instance where honour is given as a motive for fighting; and it could be argued that Henry only resorts to this motive because he has to make the best of the situation: the number of troops appears inadequate, so that only the King's appeal to the surplus of honour to be won can restore his officers' confidence. …

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