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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: July ::
Re: French in *Henry V*
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 455.  Sunday, 25 July 1993.
 
From:           William Kemp <
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Date:           Saturday, 24 Jul 93 10:35:42 EDT
Subject:        re: H5 and French
 
Peter Ayers objects to my calling Henry V monolingual, pointing
out that (as Katherine says) his French is better than her English,
and that Henry is able to cobble up one sentence of clumsy French
("Je quand sur le possession de France, et quand vous avez le possession
de moi, donc votre est France et vous etes mienne"). He does manage
another phrase in French (la plus belle Katherine du monde, mon tres
cher et devin deesse), and he also grasps the gist of several things
Katherine says. He is, Ayers argues, playing a game, making others
"bow to his language, literally and metaphorically."
 
Partly, I guess, we disagree over what 'monolingual' means. I emphathize
with Henry in this scene because my French is just about as bad as his
seems to be, and I *know* I'm monolingual.
 
The interpretive issue seems to be whether or not Henry is so
machiavellian that he pretends lack of fluency to batter Katherine.
Surely the scene is about power; he is imposing his will on Katherine.
But isn't it also about wooing? He's charming her too.
 
More to the point, he's charming us. As I said in my first posting,
his lack of French fits with the bluff warrior dimension of his
persona ("If I could win a lady at leapfrog. . ."), and it echoes
the patriotic arrangements Shakespeare has chosen (Welsh, Scottish,
Irish, English captains). Those connections make little sense if
Henry is pretending ignorance of French, and I see nothing in the
play which suggests that he's deceitful in that way. When one
character sets out to deceive another, Shakespeare lets us know
what's going on. Here, Henry just can't speak French. He's
monolingual.
 
While suspecting power is characteristic of our time, I'm not
willing to view all charcters who have and exercise power as
mean-spirited brutes (not, I realize, what Peter Ayers claimed
of Henry).
 
Bill Kemp
Mary Washington College
Fredericksburg, Va.

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