The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.06628 Wednesday, 14 April 1999.
Date: Tuesday, 13 Apr 1999 15:11:08 -0400 (EDT)
I enjoyed Kevin Donovan's comments on the reported scene of the deaths
of Suffolk and York, which, incidentally, is told to Henry right before
he gives his first order to kill his prisoners. I think that Kevin is on
target to see the reported deaths of these two soldiers as the rather
grotesque logical end of the emphasis on gangs and unity in H5. But I'm
not so sure that Henry is the instigator of this seemingly universal
urge to "belong" and to take out our frustrations on despised "others,"
in this case, the hapless French. If you go back to the beginning of the
play and read the council scene carefully (1.2), everybody but Henry and
one other unnamed "Lord" is full of patriotic ranting and raving. All
want to outdo the Black Prince and to achieve a sense of unity and
purpose associated with an idealized past. As Hal, Henry came up with a
way to "redeem the time" and raise hope in England-and now it has led to
this! Henry gives in to the push for war in the council scene, but,
realistically, what else could he do? If he said, "No," how long would
he last before England got someone who would lead them to victory
against the despised French? Not long, I think.
In a real sense, Henry finds himself in a trap at the start of H5, and
his only hope is to lead the English to victory, which is what he does!
Of course, it is, in a sense, a self-imposed trap, since HE is the one
who decides on his strategy in Part 1 and sticks to it to the bitter end
of Part 2. But those who see Henry as a crass manipulator of others need
to ask themselves what they would have done differently if they were in
Hal's position. I think he does what he has to, and he suffers the
consequences, believe me. Would you reject Falstaff to insure the public
perception that the time has been redeemed? If not, you have failed in
your public duty. If so, then you are a crass manipulator, at least,
according to many critics.
Henry is caught within the political system just like we are, except he
understands it better than we do. I think that Shakespeare suggests in
the Henriad that raising hope within the modern nation state almost
inevitably leads to war. And that is OUR fault, not Henry's. The problem
is that no one is willing to settle for just a little bit of hope and
good feeling: we want it all! And the most profound sense of unity in
the present and hope for the future comes by means of war, as Hemingway
knew all too well. I think that Shakespeare knew it too.