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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: August ::
Re: NT Henry V
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1564  Wednesday, 5 August 2003

[1]     From:   Tony Burton <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 5 Aug 2003 10:20:00 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1559 Re: NT Henry V

[2]     From:   Dana Shilling <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 5 Aug 2003 11:27:50 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1559 Re: NT Henry V

[3]     From:   Mark Adderley <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 5 Aug 2003 11:12:54 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 14.1549 Re: NT Henry V

[4]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 5 Aug 2003 18:05:38 -0700
        Subj:   RE: SHK 14.1559 Re: NT Henry V


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tony Burton <
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Date:           Tuesday, 5 Aug 2003 10:20:00 -0400
Subject: 14.1559 Re: NT Henry V
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1559 Re: NT Henry V

The economic significance of the French prisoners, as sources of ransom
payment, has fascinating potential for illuminating the play.  We know,
generally, that the taking of wealthy prisoners for ransom was a major
inducement for entering into war, and that details like the princes'
share of a captor's ransom, the general "worth" of various worthies, and
so on was usually worked out in advance and well known.

The payment of ransoms was an onerous burden on those who had to come up
with the money: the family, feudal tributaries, and the lower order
workers on the domains of those who had to raise the treasure.

From the failure of the French to condemn Henry's order to kill the
prisoners being held by his still-engaged army, let me infer that there
was a general understanding that prisoners were not safe until they were
transported well away from the scene of combat, and no longer under
guard by an army in the field.  Doesn't it follow that the decision to
attack an army holding a substantial number of prisoners implied a
preconceived willingness to sacrifice whatever prisoners were being held
by the army under attack?

The French had a cruel and perfidious, but nevertheless real economic
inducement to do just that.  The army of attackers was precisely that
group of persons who would have had to bear, and possibly be
impoverished by, the cost of the prisoners' ransoms.  They were also the
persons most likely to profit further, either in those cases where the
prisoners' death resulted in the termination of feudal tenures and
caused their landholdings to revert to their lords, or the lesser
nobility among the attackers who, if they succeeded, would have been the
beneficiaries of any redistribution.

In this view, the French are seen to be the reprehensible party, who
forced Henry to kill those very Frenchmen to whom the attackers had
feudal duties of loyalty by launching an attack when the slaughter of
prisoners as a consequence of the attack was entirely foreseeable and
probably inevitable.  Henry V remains the hero, and the horrendous loss
of life among the attacking French  appears to be condign punishment for
perfidy to the their own compatriots.  The moral issue is moved to an
entirely new plane, where it remains a troubling and unresolved problem,
but not a simple proof that Hal was bloody, single-minded, and immoral
-- which then inevitably plays back into one's view of his initial
sincerity in asking for the churchmen to assure him that his cause was
just.

This is an entirely speculative reading on my part, but it is built from
taking historical events knowable by Shakespeare and the dramatic events
he created from them.  Does anyone out there, with a deeper knowledge of
the feudal laws of war, know if it was considered wrong to attack an
army containing a large train of prisoners of war?  Or whether the loss
of their lives was an accepted and acceptable cost of war?

Tony Burton

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Dana Shilling <
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Date:           Tuesday, 5 Aug 2003 11:27:50 -0400
Subject: 14.1559 Re: NT Henry V
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1559 Re: NT Henry V

Theodor Meron's "Bloody Constraint: War and Chivalry in Shakespeare"
(Oxford U. Press 1998), available very inexpensively from Hamilton
Books, discusses early modern concepts of the law of war very
thoroughly.

Dana Shilling

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mark Adderley <
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Date:           Tuesday, 5 Aug 2003 11:12:54 -0500
Subject: 14.1549 Re: NT Henry V
Comment:        RE: SHK 14.1549 Re: NT Henry V

Please excuse my comments, if they seem very obvious:

>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.

To which Brian Willis wrote: "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."

I'm not sure that we're meant to take Henry as undiluted goodness.
Here, you notice, Shakespeare doesn't mention the killing of the boys
then the killing of the prisoners.  He inserts the clause about the
king's treasure in between.  I think he does this to give "O! 'Tis a
gallant king" a new context, an ironic one.  I watched the Michael
Bogdanov "Wars of the Roses" sequence back in 1989, and remember the
audience's sharp intake of breath at that comment -- it can't help but
undermine your liking for Henry.  And it's worth noticing that when
Kenneth Branagh films this scene, the comment about the treasure is
entirely gone.

I don't know why Branagh's film was heralded as "modern" and "realistic"
and "anti-war," when the only unpleasant business at Agincourt was the
mud and a rather graphic ambush for the Duke of York.  Branagh's Henry
seems to me to be a genuinely good person, since he's been deprived of
the complexities of Shakespeare's character.  It's a great film, but
necessarily simplified.

This seems to me to be an instance of Shakespeare reminding us that even
the best people have petty traits as well as great ones.  I don't think
we finish the play thinking ill of Henry, but I think the ironies
underscore the difficulty of being king, and the complexity of the human
spirit under conditions of war.

Mark Adderley
Missouri Valley College

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Tuesday, 5 Aug 2003 18:05:38 -0700
Subject: 14.1559 Re: NT Henry V
Comment:        RE: SHK 14.1559 Re: NT Henry V

Kenneth Chan quotes from the book "Henry V, War Criminal?" by John
Sutherland and Cedric Watts:

"Herschel Baker, in the Riverside Shakespeare, blandly notes that
'Henry's dreadful talk before Harfleur and his command to kill the
prisoners were approved procedures in fifteenth-century war'. Approved?
If that were the case, what foe would ever be fool enough to allow
himself to be taken captive?"

This is an odd sort of question, since men have indeed surrendered
themselves when there was very little chance that their opponents would
honour the Geneva conventions. The German army in Stalingrad
surrendered, for instance. If the chance of surviving battle is even
lower than surviving imprisonment, it would remain quite logical to
surrender to a merciless enemy. Besides, soldiers don't surrender out of
a calculation of the odds of survival, but because their will to fight
has been broken.

Kenneth's broader point about the story line being altered or not by
Shakespeare is well taken, and I think that only Brian Willis has talked
about the play's determination to show us the terror and pity of war.
But of course, this isn't incompatible with glorification.

I'm surprised, by the way, that nobody has cited Theodor Meron, an
international law scholar who's written a couple of books on chivalry
and military honour codes in Shakespeare. I'm grateful for the citations
that Arthur Lindley and John Briggs have provided, since I collect
articles on the subject when I run across them.

Yours,
Sean Lawrence.

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