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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: September ::
Rights of Descent in Henry V
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1739  Friday, 17 September 2004

From:           Harvey Roy Greenberg <
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Date:           Friday, 17 Sep 2004 00:39:36 EDT
Subject:        Opening Presentation of Rights of Descent in Henry V

I make no claims as a Shakespeare scholar, but after watching both
filmed Henry V's, and having seen the production innumerable times, I
thought once more about the initial presentation of the lineage by -- I
believe -- the Archbishop was it of Canterbury -- that allows Henry to
war against France. I do not know the actual history very well.

I have seen the presentation played as comedy, notably in the Olivier
version, which set one to mind of Hamlet's warning about clowns
obscuring some 'vital issue'. This slapstick rushing about picking up
fallen papers makes a mockery of the spur for the 'argument of blood' to
follow.

In the Branagh version, the lineage is presented with great seriousness
of argument, under Henry's stern admonition. Still, it is complex, at
least for a modern reader, to follow. The conclusion, which is
introduced as pristine and clear by the Archbishop, is clear as mud to a
viewer of today. I have seen productions where both the listeners on
stage and viewers both shook their head. What conclusion here: is the
entire speech a more subtle mockery to be seized upon with knowledge
aforethought, following the first scene where the scheming priests --
who in fact are the real initiators -- wish to spur Henry on to the
church's gain.

In one production, the Archbishop stood before an a large note pad, and
used a black broad fell-tipped pen complete with arrows and names to
unfold the argument from Pheremond, etc  hinging around the bad sexual
behavior of the ladies of Salig Land inter alia. This ultimately didn't
work, because of the modernity of the presentation with the felt tipped
pen before nobles and king dressed for the period.

I would think there would be a fair amount of scholarship on every point
here, but I do not know it. Is, in fact, the argument about lineage both
logical and correct, or is it  a "shuck" with the outcome known in
advance -- that Henry itches for war, to prove himself the king he wants
to be even more so than in his wilder days. Or simply because he seeks
power and needs to have some legitimacy. WMD, whatever. We have
certainly seen this historically. Henry is a complex figure, both
honorable and guileful, merciful and vengeful.

What, then, of the opening scene. I have thought of another method, and
it would twist Shakespeare about, but not to the extent of a resurrected
Cordelia.

When the emissary from Henry go to the French court, he presents dilated
articles and bids the King to oversee them. They will be considered, and
rejected. So much for that. But would it in any way serve, if indeed we
believe that guileful or honorable, Henry seeks a justification and it
is in fact there, how about the following. The Archbishop enters with a
document, scrolled and bound, which sets forth the lineage without
speaking it through. He bids the King to overlook it, and in this
admittedly tampered version, Henry would spend some time doing this,
consider, and then pass his judgement about the righteousness of his
cause. Another addition would be for the Archbishop's assistant to pass
the same scroll to the important courtiers, and they would read it to
themselves with the King.

All of this assumes that the lineage is correct, and not a mere
justification. But it may actually be a mockery, even when carefully
spoken in a slow and logical presentation, with a more appropriate
mapping out of lines of descent, in a visual format more appropriate to
Elizabethan times. All then would presumably known that the presentation
is a pretext, the King passionate to war, and no pretext or not much
really needed.

The central point, setting aside my changes -- and I admit they tamper
considerably with what Shakespeare presents us with -- is the ambiguity
of Henry's character, and his ambivalence about war even as he wants it,
is willing to face all the arms and legs rising on Judgment Day.

It's late, and I am prolix, but I would really like to know what your
group things of this scene, how it was meant to be played, the reality
of the history, whether in fact the scene took place according to
contemporary chronicles, Frossard perhaps, whomever

And I would love to know what versions others have seen. It seems that
this cannot be elided from the play, the way Olivier chopped off the
conspiracy against Henry before he sails.

As always, I greatly enjoy your discussion.

Harvey Roy Greenberg, MD

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