The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0288 Thursday, 3 November 2011
Date: November 3, 2011 11:38:15 AM EDT
Subject: Ironic Henry V Commentary
I have finished my website and am online, so I would like to re-submit my last post, sent on Friday 28 Oct, to include the website for those interested in looking further into the ironies of Henry V.
Here is the edited Post for your consideration, now including the website address. And 'Thanks again' for the opportunity to bring this topic before your forum.
I have been making comments about Henry V being 'Ironic' and would like to continue to pursue this with some commentary I hope others may find interesting. I am convinced the play was intentionally crafted to mislead the auditor into a patriotic zeal for the King and his Agincourt miracle, while underneath it’s actually a ‘War is Hell’ message (Morality) play - and the true depth and breadth of Shakespeare's ironies have yet to be fully recognized and appreciated. I have also suggested that once it is recognized what’s truly going on in Henry V, that it will provide reasonable cause to look anew at how Shakespeare is studied and considered - once more, as the originator of the ironic Henry V reading Gerald Gould stated in 1919, ‘it is impossible, if one is wrong about Henry V, to be altogether right about the rest of Shakespeare.’
I have received some off-line comments to the effect that plenty of people see ironies in Henry V with the amplification this is all very old news. Again, if people are already in the ironic camp, I hope they will find some of these observations either enhance their appreciation of what Shakespeare has wrought, or possibly encourage them to revisit the play. The truth of the matter is, as ‘old news’ as ironic Henry V is, as best I can tell, there is not a single edition of Henry V that actually endorses ‘the play is ironic’. Gary Taylor (Oxford) very off-handedly and assuredly dismisses the ironic read in the very first paragraph of his Introduction. Craig (Arden) unequivocally states, [the audience] ‘is not encouraged to be skeptical about Agincourt. Henry V is a celebratory play, commemorating a famous victory.’ At best, editors may acknowledge ironic complexities that undermine but they waver well before committing to an ironic intention by Shakespeare. I felt the best scene by scene treatment I found of the play, Twayne’s New Critical Introduction by Anthony Brennan, clearly recognizes many ironies permeating the play, but thinking it will diminish the play, he would not ‘see’ the author as being ironic. Allow me a quick summary recap to put myself ‘out there’ in how to read & think about this play. I’m suggesting,
- The play was written to stage well as that demonstrable panegyric celebration of the King and his Agincourt victory.
- The play is essentially a Closet Drama - written to be closely read and mulled over rather than staged.
- The author intends the reader (eventually) recognizes his ironic orientation, and then joins him!
Although some have recognized Henry V as a battleground for ‘Stage verses Page’ debates (Gurr, et al), I am unequivocally stating with Henry V - it’s a close, thoughtful read that the author intends - and I do believe that when this is fully realized it will be recognized as a breakthrough interpretation. I even suggest that the not infrequent urging to use your thoughts and imagination to follow the play are in this sense of close reading and pondering what's happening, vice having to do with inadequate staging.
On your imaginarie Forces worke ...
Peece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our Kings ...
Therefore let euery man now taske his thought ...
In motion of no lesse celeritie then that of Thought.
Worke, worke your Thoughts, and therein see a Seize:
All things are ready, if our minds be so ...
He’s compelling us to go beyond the (im-passioned) stage appearance and into the (thoughtful) text - (that’s where the King gets decked).
I’m aware I may sound arrogant and close-minded with this entrenched ironic slant on the play, but I am absolutely convinced the author intended to ‘puzzle’ us, while knowing eventually we’d find the ironic orientation is where the gold vein is with this play. In Act V he even has the King say,
... therefore was I created with a stubborne outside, with an aspect of Iron ...
and I suggest this IS Shakespeare himself again ‘playing’ with his character while acknowledging to those ‘in the know’ that he’d created this ironic masterpiece. In Henry V he has raised the bar and given a turn to the Renaissance commonplace, ‘The Art is to hide the Art.’ Again specific to Shakespeare’s zeitgeist, the term ‘mirror’ was often used to present an exemplar example, but when we recognize Shakespeare’s ironic intent, we know when King Henry V seems to be exalted as the mirror of all Christian Kings, that subversively Shakespeare is illuminating an image that is actually backward for us. (Jesus preached love and peace, etc.)
Here is one incredibly dry mock irony I don’t recall having seen previously recognized:
Act 2 Scene 1 is a ‘low’ Scene reintroducing us to the Eastcheap crew, Bardolph, Nym, Pistol and Mistress Quickly, (sans Falstaff, soon to die offstage). Some ironic commentators have noted the parallels between these low characters and their acknowledged ‘self-interest’ in going to war (profits will accrue) with those of the Nobles ... but the Truth is, we have to get above the fray here to see what’s really going on. When we Shake-the-Scene jest a bit, we find he's actually giving us an incredible Parody here - it’s the Trojan War: two guys fighting over one woman. And the fun productions have with this scene actually plays right into Shakespeare’s hand: it’s very common to stage Pistol and Nym with exaggerated ‘phallic’ imagery pulling their swords out and back in and out again, etc. But the really dry comment Shakespeare makes, he makes TWICE: ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if we could actually avoid these wars by making it clear that the first to ‘draw blood’ got punished?' This interpretation I’ve ‘read into’ the Scene would not be intended to be recognized in the ephemeral experience of the ‘in the moment’ theater, but when we have the time to pull away and think about what’s going on, if you’ve a taste for irony, it becomes quite brilliant. ... And given this Trojan War allusion, it’s quite appropriate to bring forward that the war was famous for the Trojan horse - where the outside presented tribute, while underneath were bore the seeds for the city’s firry destruction - O for a (Vulcan) Muse of Fire - this is exactly what Shakespeare has done with (Ironic) Henry V.
Let me make another observation which illustrates one of Shakespeare’s frequent ironic ‘dry mock’ methods:
- Serve up some ‘exemplar’ words.
- Volley back (contradicting) Actions which (should) speak louder.
In Act 1 Scene 2 the French Ambassador options to give the King the Dolphin’s gift (tennis balls) in private, but the King responds,
We are no Tyrant, but a Christian King,
Vnto whose grace our passion is as subiect
As is our wretches fettred in our prisons ...
Straight from his class in Greek philosophy: Passions kept under control by reason.
THEN he gets punked by the prank tennis balls, hardly something an adult would reasonably get too bent out of shape about, and Shakespeare gives the King a THIRTY NINE line speech that is all but impossible to deliver without getting ‘passionate’. Again, if you are tuned to a dry sense of humour - very funny.
… And tell the pleasant Prince, this Mocke of his
Hath turn'd his balles to Gun-stones, and his soule
Shall stand sore charged, for the wastefull vengeance
That shall flye with them: for many a thousand widows
Shall this his Mocke, mocke out of their deer husbands;
Mocke mothers from their sonnes, mock Castles downe ...
Mock-mock-mock: it’s Shakespeare who’s actually mocking the King.
I believe that once you 'tune in' to Shakespeare's irony in Henry V, it's not such a stretch to imagine the King as an actual Morality Play Vice character 'War', and Shakespeare undoubtably has his way with him - a Cautionary Tale in the truest sense, if we're willing to go along. Or to put it in a context I believe Shakespeare would appreciate, in Henry V Shakespeare plays St George, and he slays the dragon, War.
England ne're had a King vntill his time:
Vertue he had, deseruing to command,
His brandisht Sword did blinde men with his beames,
His Armes spred wider then a Dragons Wings:
His sparkling Eyes, repleat with wrathfull fire,
More dazled and droue back his Enemies,
Then mid-day Sunne, fierce bent against their faces.
What should I say? his Deeds exceed all speech:
He ne're lift vp his Hand, but conquered ...
- 1HV6; Act 1 Scene1, (first posthumously published in the First Folio)
(... And so we leaue you to other of his Friends, whom if you need, can bee your guides: if you neede them not, you can leade your selues, and others. And such Readers we wish him.)
All this to say, there is much, much more going on with (an author intended) Ironic Henry V then has been fully appreciated . . . it's my firm belief the trouble with Harry isn't that the ironic case hasn't been noted, it's that it's been partially dug out, (exhumed), but it then gets reburied in the interest of other scholastic pursuits - the ironic read needs to be permanently brought out and dusted off and become a monument to Shakespeare's true Genius - Henry V is a Masterpiece.
I have previously unabashedly stated I am publishing a website exploring the ironic case for Henry V with the hope of stimulating a greater appreciation of the play, or that it might flick the switch for some who can’t currently imagine Shakespeare was actually trashing his King while appearing on stage to exalt him. I now have the website online for anyone wanting to explore the evidence that Henry V is intended to be read and thought about ironically, (regarding honorable & heroic war). The website is: