Monday, November 21, 2016


The acme of English King and yet so short lmived


He is the perfect king in Shakespeare’s plays who reigns from 1413 to 1422, hence nine years. Shakespeare invested him in three previous plays, Richard II, 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV. But in these plays he is a kid and then a teenager playing it hooky in the taverns of London. But that time is now finished as we know from his rebuke to Falstaff on his coronation day at the end of 2 Henry IV. The man has changed and his most important achievement is the battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415, the day that celebrates Saint Crispin that Shakespeare also calls Crispian who was put to death on October 25, 285. Note how the superstitious people of Shakespeare’s time can jubilate on the fact that 285 produces 15 by adding the three digits of the date. Hence 1415 is a miracle date that brings God down on Henry’s side to the point that the battle only kills twenty-five people on the English side, dixit Shakespeare, twenty-five to honor October 25, Saint Crispin’s day.

This English king who has the intention to unify England and France by marrying the King of France’s daughter will fail in that respect since his son will only be six years old when he dies in the Château of Vincennes in France on 1422. Note though how they all are cousins or uncles. In other words these two crowns are systematically inbreeding. There is little clean blood and new blood in their descendants. Shakespeare seems to consider this as normal and even a sign of closeness, hence a justification for unifying the two crowns and of course the two nations that are seen and defined as being born under the kings of this period. The War of Roses is like a nation-forming civil war, a war between brothers and cousins, uncles and nephews. That’s one of the results of this intense inbreeding. So Henry V marries his cousin. And their imposing the One Hundred Year War onto the French will enable the French to become a nation at the same time.

That’s the end of the play and the courtship of Henry to Katharine is both awkward and funny how Henry is behaving like a soldier and wants the courtship to be a battle and Katharine to yield to his might, and at the same time how Katharine is well-behaved and French-educated and she has to flee, fly away and flutter around, and she swiftly parry his assault, deflect his attack, block and avert his advance, counter and rebuff his intention, and finally repel and repulse his vanity to take as a conquest what should be received as a gift or a present. Luckily her father King Charles VI arrives and he can finally give his daughter to Henry and Henry can finally receive Katharine. The love words of Henry are vastly contorted by the linguistic game of both, Katharine trying to speak some English and Henry attempting the impossible task of speaking some French.

The whole action of the play is one battle or nearly, the war leading to that battle, Agincourt, and it is thus entirely dominated by military questions. It contrasts the English army led by Henry V and the French army led by the Dauphin in the name of his aging father Charles VI. Imagine the French nobles drinking wine in the morning before the battle and boasting that they are going to defeat the English the way they gulp their wine. On the other side the English are austere and very serious in their concentration on God and his necessary help. The English are humble in many ways and the French are vain, as vain as peacocks who will end up plucked like chickens before roasting or broiling.

In a very clear sign of defeat Montjoy, the French herald, appears three times. The second time he had said he would not come again, and the third time he comes to concede the day is Henry’s, hence the defeat. Three is always a sign of a disturbance, a bad news, a catastrophe. But the catastrophe of one side is the victory of the other. And he will come a fourth time with the body counts that will settle the bad news and bring up a good news. First the French body count:

There are but sixteen hundred mercenaries;
The rest are princes, barons, lords, knights, squires,
And gentlemen of blood and quality.” (Act IV, Scene viii)

And then the English body count:

Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire:
None else of name; and of all other men
But five and twenty.(Act IV, Scene viii)

But the strong point is the night before the battle. On the French side they revel and are bored of waiting. On the English side they try to rest and concentrate on their divine mission. The king though tries something delicate: he hides himself under some cloak and goes around to check on his men. Security is correct every single time he comes up in the night. He finally sits with a group of soldiers and one of them, Williams, gets into an argument with the King, not knowing who he is, because Williams is not as respectful as he should be and Henry overreacts. But this leads to a deep and sad reflection of the king. He sees his place as the depositary of all the tasks and actions of the people but he also considers that the soul of these people is their own and they have to look after it themselves, as he says to the soldiers in the night.

And then alone he gets onto a long reflection of the fate of a king, shifting from prose to verse to let us know he is reaching out to the sky, to God, to the truth of life he definitely considers as the truth of God.

In other words Shakespeare considers this king as the best, the true king of England and he sets in his own mouth the ideal of kingship he, Shakespeare, is advocating. Yet Henry IV’s misappropriating the crown is there in Henry V’s mind as an inerasable crime or stain that can only bring mishap and some fateful accident, just like the death of the Duke of York in the battle which will be put on his bill one way or another since he is a Lancaster and the house of York is his rival. The bad news is always wrapped up in some sweet meat and turns it sour or sickening. The king will die young leaving an infant, or a child, on the throne and a war raging in France, not to speak of the persistent rivalry between the two roses.


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