The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.2475 Monday, 5 January 2004
From: Abigail Quart <
Date: Friday, 2 Jan 2004 11:53:43 -0500
Subject: Pop Culture: Politics
Not sure if this will be considered appropriate, but I was startled to
find this essay on Henry V in the middle of some highly partisan
What I love most is the attention the author pays to the introductory
scene with the bishops.
PENTAGON CENSORS THE CLASSICS, BUT SHAKESPEARE SLIPS THROUGH
by Margie Burns
Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth contains some of the great warlike
speeches of all time -- "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once
more!" -- and its poetry has been pillaged for every English war since
it was written (1599).
Understandably, Henry V is one of four books now being given to military
personnel in the Pentagon's "Legacy Project," recently revived:
"First published in 1943, more than 123 million "Armed Services
Editions" (ASEs) were handed out to U.S. troops overseas . . . the
largest free distribution of fiction and non-fiction books in the
history of the world. More than 1,300 titles in all were published,
including . . . classic works of literature by such authors as
Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Melville."
But the criticism underestimates Shakespeare, if not the Pentagon.
Anyone who assumes Henry V is gung-ho jingoism should read its first scene.
The play is about Henry's invading France, to conquer it and take it
over for England. (Some scenes trash the French exactly they way they're
being trashed today.)
But the invasion is instigated not by Henry but by two eminences behind
the throne, the political Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Ely. As
the play opens, they are worried, not about France, but about a threat
closer to home: the House of Commons is considering a bill to confiscate
half the church's possessions.
"For all the temporal lands which men devout
By testament have given to the church
Would they strip from us" --
When the bishop asks repeatedly how they can ward off this threat, the
archbishop comes up with his campaign idea: they will urge Henry to
conquer France instead, and will give him the money to do it:
"Which I have open'd to his grace at large,
As touching France, to give a greater sum
Than ever at one time the clergy yet
Did to his predecessors part withal."
France, they will argue, offers bigger booty than the Church -
"The severals and unhidden passages
Of his true titles to some certain dukedoms
And generally to the crown and seat of France
Derived from Edward, his great-grandfather" -
and along with the money, they will also give his invasion the church's
blessing. Incidentally, they also treat the invasion as inevitable.
And thus begins a great play, in its own ironic way, with a truly
enjoyable, smarmy kick-off.
Everyone and his brother has called Shakespeare "timeless," a tribute
almost undeniable. The plays may become less clear on some
twenty-fifth-century planet Xanax, but for now, obviously, the scene
above sounds familiar to the point of allegory: just substitute "Bush
uncles" for churchmen, "oil" for the French throne, any of several
needed reforms for confiscation, etc.
The ironies are so neat, in fact, that it is almost irresistible to
speculate about how they happened. Maybe some Pentagon desk seats a
Renaissance-literature mole, using a scrivener's job and the master's
tools to chisel an English-major "Kilroy was here" on the massive Iraq
Or maybe, as the author wrote in another context, "There's a divinity
that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will." --Margie Burns, 03.12.03
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the
opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the
editor assumes no responsibility for them.