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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: September ::
Re: Shakespeare and Chivalry
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0891  Thursday, 24 September 1998.

[1]     From:   Ed Taft <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 23 Sep 1998 12:09:42 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Chivalry and Henry V's Order to Kill His Prisoners

[2]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 23 Sep 1998 11:56:16 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0887  Shakespeare and Chivalry


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Wednesday, 23 Sep 1998 12:09:42 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Chivalry and Henry V's Order to Kill His Prisoners

Johan Roos's interesting observations about chivalry end by juxtaposing
Henry V's comments about lenity with his order to kill his prisoners
during the battle of Agincourt. But the issue may not be that clear-cut,
since war often demands actions that under different circumstances we
would never take.  Both Rabkin and Goddard assume that Henry's order
exposes him as a hypocrite, but a careful reading of what leads up to
Henry's order suggests that the French have formed a "throng" (4.5) that
seems, at least, to be attacking (or about to attack) the English one
last time. If this "throng" were to pierce Henry's lines and free the
French prisoners, all would be lost.  Moreover, if the throng attacks,
the men who now guard the French prisoners will be needed to repel the
oncoming attack. As far as we can tell, the "throng" finally chooses to
attack the boys in the camp, but Henry has no way of knowing what the
French will finally do.

I write this because for the past 25 years, critics have had a hard time
being fair to Henry. They seem unable to put themselves in his place and
see the "necessity" of many of the decisions he makes. Henry may be
wrong to order the death of his prisoners, but if so, it is a
split-second judgment that he thinks necessary at the time, not
hypocrisy.  Perhaps that is why after the discovery of the dead boys,
Shakespeare introduces the subject of Falstaff's rejection. In both
cases (the rejection and his order), Henry acts under necessity. And now
Henry shares with Falstaff the reputation of being a "misleader of
youth."

--Ed Taft

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Wednesday, 23 Sep 1998 11:56:16 -0700
Subject: 9.0887  Shakespeare and Chivalry
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0887  Shakespeare and Chivalry

> The great exception is Henry V, a heroic character despite his shocking
> order at Agincourt and his threats to the citizens of Harfleur to
> surrender or see his soldiers "mowing like grass your fresh fair virgins
> and your flow'ring infants."

I'm not sure if it qualifies as a text on chivalry, but Montaigne would
back up Henry in an obscure essay on whether garrisons should
surrender.  I don't have the essay at hand-most people ignore it, and it
isn't in either of the abridged versions of the Essays that I have lying
around-but basically, Montaigne argues that surrenders should be made 1.
when no reasonable hope of rescue remains; 2. before the assault, when
discipline becomes practically unenforceable and the soldiers are drunk
with adrenaline.  Henry may not be so much threatening as outlining the
inevitable.

That said, your writer for the Times seems rather undecided on whether
chivalry is basically dead, or whether it survives in the laws of war,
which are, after all, occasionally enforced and violations of which are
punishable, at least in most first world armies, by death.  In recent
years, we have seen, if anything, an increase in both international
war-crimes tribunals and domestic military discipline of offenders.
We'd better hope the honour of warriors can survive.

Cheers,
Sean
 

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