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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: August ::
Re: NT Henry V
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1549  Monday, 4 August 2003

[1]     From:   Cornelius Novelli <
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        Date:   Friday, 01 Aug 2003 11:40:09 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V

[2]     From:   John Briggs <
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        Date:   Friday, 1 Aug 2003 16:55:29 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V

[3]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Friday, 1 Aug 2003 11:53:45 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V

[4]     From:   Stuart Manger <
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        Date:   Friday, 1 Aug 2003 20:10:54 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V

[5]     From:   Arthur Lindley <
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        Date:   Saturday, 2 Aug 2003 11:28:18 +0800 (SGT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Cornelius Novelli <
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Date:           Friday, 01 Aug 2003 11:40:09 -0400
Subject: 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V

This is perhaps not precisely on the topic, "reactions" to the killing
of the prisoners, but historian John Keegan in THE FACE OF BATTLE gives
a detailed, interesting account of the battle of Agincourt.  He
speculates that, given the conditions and weapons available, only a
small percentage of prisoners could possibly have been killed.

-- Neil Novelli

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Briggs <
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Date:           Friday, 1 Aug 2003 16:55:29 +0100
Subject: 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V

Don Bloom  asks about Henry V's killing of prisoners at Agincourt.

For Shakespeareans, the question is discussed in: John Sutherland,
Cedric Watts and Stephen Orgel, "Henry V, War Criminal? - and Other
Shakespeare Puzzles" (Oxford UP, 2000), (Paperback) 0-19-283879-2

For the historians, Maurice Keen, in "Chivalry" (Yale UP, 1984), p.221
writes, "There was remarkably little contemporary criticism of his
action: much less than one might have expected, given that quarter was
normally granted in the Anglo-French wars."

John Briggs

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Friday, 1 Aug 2003 11:53:45 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V

The passages regarding the killing of prisoners:

Act IV Scene vi:

HENRY: The French have reinforc'd their scatter'd men:
             Then every soldier kill his prisoners!

and again Fluellen gives a rationale for it, in the context of the
slaughtered boys:

Act IV Scene vii:

"Tis certain, there's not a boy left alive; and the cowardly rascals
that ran from the battle have done this slaughter: besides, they have
burned and carried away all that was in the king's tent; wherefore the
king most worthily hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner's
throat. O! Tis a gallant king."

I think Don has a great point. In our post Watergate, Iran-Contra,
Monica Lewinski, non-WMD political consciousness, we automatically jump
all over political gaffes, elaborations and obfuscations. It would be
very easy to merely condemn the slaughter of prisoners since we have
Geneva convention rules and war tribunals to prosecute such activities.
But Shakespeare gave us contexts for the massacre of these prisoners.
The textual history of the two explanations for the order is too long to
discuss here but regardless of which one you believe, the explanation is
very clear. Henry can not be burdened by the prisoners when a far
numerically superior force is gathering itself for a second offensive.
Guard them while trying to fight? Set them free? No, unfortunately for
them. They are too much of a risk and must be disposed of. Perhaps our
sensibility sees this as butchery but it is a mere necessity in Henry's
eyes. And Shakespeare presents it as such. It is mentioned as the final
lines of the scene, and regardless of the interval until the next scene,
whether it is a second or ten seconds, the audience is forced to
confront the brutal reality of war. If Fluellen's explanation holds, it
is a more explicit reaction to the type of activity that Pistol is
engaged with in this war. Looters have broken the acknowledged "off
limits" of war and slaughtered boys and taken possessions of the king.
The looters are those "cowardly rascals" who ran from the battlefield
because they were not there to fight, but merely in the most
Thenardier-like fashion, to become rich from the spoils of war. They are
French Pistols. Because of the this transgression, all bets are off. The
rules are not being followed and Henry must assume the worst.

I don't believe that the episode with the prisoners is included to
affect our sympathy for Henry one way or the other. After the Crispin's
Day speech, Shakespeare chooses to hammer us with the consequences of
war. York begs the leading of the award. Pistol is ignominiously ready
to cut a soldier's throat unless he receives financial reward. The boy
comments on that cowardice. The French comment on the dishonor of losing
and choose to go down bravely fighting ("let life be short, ere shame
will be too long").  The death of York is movingly reported by Exeter.
Then Henry gives the order to kill the prisoners in light of the renewed
attack by the French. The boys are killed and Fluellen has several
comments about the conduct of war. Henry is willing to initiate a
blistering attack, reminding us of the rhetoric before Harfleur's walls.
Then the battle is ceased, and a detailed description of the dead is
read out, partly to accentuate the overwhelming victory of the English
but also to detail the nobility lost that day. And Shakespeare doesn't
let us off the hook once treaties are signed. Burgandy's long speech
about the gardens of peace is an reaffirmation of the benefits of peace
and the waste of war.

When I played the part, I was overwhelmed by these realizations as they
hammered me and the audience. What had I gotten myself into? Over an
insult with tennis balls? To prove my manhood? To unite my country? It
was too much to bear. I exploded at Mountjoy when he entered. But it was
an explosion that was my last vestige of energy. It flared and then I
collapsed under the weight of, well, everything. Even the announcement
that "the day is yours" solicited only a sigh of relief. It had all
happened so fast and the slaughter of the prisoners was only one piece
to a larger picture of bloody, dirty war.

In short, I don't believe the slaughter of the prisoners is a didactic
plot device. It merely forces us to realize that war, despite the
rhetoric of Henry and the Chorus, is nasty business where no one really
wins when everyone weeps.

God, I love this play. But it's more like a "Saving Private Ryan", "Deer
Hunter" love. I acknowledge a genuine sadness underlying the play. I
believe Shakespeare sets us up perfectly with The Chorus and Henry's
large patriotic, jingoistic speeches. Every time we get one, we get an
immediate thump on the head. We get set up into really high emotions so
that the lows of war are far more resounding.

Brian Willis

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stuart Manger <
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Date:           Friday, 1 Aug 2003 20:10:54 +0100
Subject: 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V

Not qualified to speak on the exact historical background. Ref: Mr
Bloom's [4] question on audiences and treatment of prisoners:

Excuse me for saying it but anyone watching current TV footage of
[predominantly] American forces in Iraq, or Russian troops in Chechnya
can have absolutely no doubt that [a] it happens, [b] in today's world,
we have become coarsened enough to know and accept that by and large, if
the stakes are high enough, or the troops frightened enough, dispatching
prisoners in 'battle' is rife, and that the pious principles of the
Geneva Convention are more honoured in the breach etc.

I fear that no audience these days would be the slightest surprised, or
maybe even more, terribile dictu, much morally outraged by the notion.
If you actually do the killing of the 'boys' on stage with nothing left
to the imagination, and plenty of that particular noise that a boy makes
screaming as opposed to the noise made by a girl - as a number of
productions tend to do - then that is usually sufficient to wash away
any residual clinging to war / treatment of prisoners theory.

I am indelibly reminded of the killing of the 12 yr old Palestine boy by
Israeli troops in I think Bethlehem in front of the world's press, and
the subsequent noisy obfuscation by the IDF in attempting to 'justify '
or 'explain'. The action can be morally picked over afterwards, but once
the target is dead, bit late for re-tracing any kind of moral path.
'REal Politik'? And H5 is actually far more about that than principle,
however Act 1 starts. cf the Harfleuir speeches??

So, H5 is exasperated - following Fluellen's eloquent analysis-  and
claims that outrage as sufficient moral justification. A modern
audience, I suspect, would side with him.

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Arthur Lindley <
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Date:           Saturday, 2 Aug 2003 11:28:18 +0800 (SGT)
Subject: 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1546 Re: NT Henry V

Our colleague Hugh Grady touches on these matters in his excellent
chapter on H5 in _Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne: Power and
Subjectivity from 'Richard II' to 'Hamlet'_ (OUP, 2002), 204-42.  See
also Andrew Gurr, '"Henry V" and the Bee's Commonwealth', _Shakespeare
Survey 30_ (1977), 61-72 [cited by Grady]. Contemporary views of the
legality of killing prisoners were highly conflicted and could have
allowed quite opposing responses (as with most things Harry does).

Arthur Lindley

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