Friday, April 16, 2010

Shakesblogging: Henry V

What I love about this play: I hardly know where to begin. I guess I’ll start by saying that it exemplifies a lot of the stuff I love about Shakespeare, especially in the complicated balance between the sordid and glorious faces of war, and between Henry’s admirable and reprehensible qualities. It’s a play that presents multiple viewpoints persuasively and makes room for multiple perceptions of the same event. Most readers, myself included, aren’t really up for dealing with that level of negative capability. Frankly, I always have to struggle to give Henry his props, since my own sympathies are with Pistol and Bardolph, and especially with Michael Williams, my favorite bit-part character in Shakespeare. But he is very, very good at what he does, and I think he honestly believes in justice – “the quittance of desert and merit / According to the weight and worthiness” – and tries to see it done. Also, I defy anyone not to get the shivers at the St. Crispin’s Day speech, and I think it’s heartfelt.

That said, I always get even more shivery at Michael Williams’s challenge to Henry’s entire ethos: “But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died at such and such a place’; some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left.” How do you answer that? The king doesn’t, really – Williams gets a glove full of gold and a pardon for speaking his mind, but the bigger questions linger.

Also, Pistol’s exit at the beginning of Act 5 breaks my heart: the disaffected former soldier who has lost everything that anchors him to society and is still trying to make a go of survival – by cheating, stealing, any way he can.

Favorite moment: Falstaff’s impromptu wake, which is also the last moment the tavern characters are together. You’ve probably gathered by now that I have a soft spot for all of them, but especially for Bardolph (“Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell”) and Mistress Quickly (“Nay, surely, he’s not in hell, he’s in Arthur’s bosom if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom.”) It’s such a poignant scene, and all the more so because the best way they know how to memorialize Falstaff is by retelling his jests. It’s also the last time they’ll ever see each other.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

The second tetralogy is my very favorite thing in the world. Henry V is so great to teach because if its many layers. Absolutely love it! I'm with you, though. My sympathies are definitely with the tavern people. I am sad at Pistol's ending, but I think he's simply submitted to the corruption all around him -- out of despair. To me, that's a pretty direct judgment on Shakespeare's part. I could go on and on about this but my 4 year old won't let me.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Isn't the whole tetralogy amazing? I always feel like I have to teach the whole cycle if I'm going to do any of them, because there's so much stuff that packs a much bigger punch if you know what comes before and after.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

For the last two years, I've taught 1H4 and H5, but given extensive lectures on R2 and 2H4. I actually use the history plays as a weeding out technique. I start with them, and students who have no courage usually drop the class. :) But the ones who stick around ALWAYS end up loving the history plays. They're always surprised they like them so much. I suppose instructor enthusiasm has something to do with that. :)

Two years ago, we did a afternoon reading of 2H4 where the whole class got together with assigned parts and read through it. It took a long time, but it was fun. I thought that it helped to have read it together before we read H5, but I didn't have time to do it this past year. Instead, I spent some time reading important passages in class (Hal's chat with Poins, Hal's chat with Henry IV, and Falstaff's rejection). The students get it, and they like it.

I could spend my whole life reading these plays and never get bored. I'm a history play junkie.