The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 29.0141 Wednesday, 21 February 2018
Date: Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Subject: New Paper for Comment: Henry V: A Genius (Ironic) Hoax?
As a service to its members, SHAKSPER makes selected papers for which the author would like comments available for a short time on the SHAKSPER server.
The following paper is currently available: folder Henry V: A Genius (Ironic) Hoax? (Click on title to the left to download a pdf copy.)
Henry V: A Genius (Ironic) Hoax?
None of Shakespeare’s plays is so persistently and thoroughly misunderstood as Henry V, and one is tempted to think that there is no play which is more important to understand . . . Shakespeare can scarcely have intended that force of preconception should, hundreds of years after his death, still be preventing the careful, the learned, and the sympathetic from seeing what he so definitely put down. The play is ironic: that is, I venture to think, a fact susceptible to detailed proof. - Gerald Gould (1919)
Although Henry V does not typically make a short list of Shakespeare masterpieces, the critical history of the play is one of the most interesting in the canon, and although it is generally not considered a problem play, it is “by far the most controversial of the histories.” The controversy centers on discerning Shakespeare’s intent for the play: is it to present King Henry V as an exemplar, a mirror for other monarchs to emulate, and to glorify his incredibly improbable victory at Agincourt, or is Shakespeare taking his audience in with that outward appearance while his perspective of the action is actually ironic, and is revealed in the subtle but pervasive undermining and subverting of that celebratory view. The dispute is generally acknowledged to have been started by William Hazlitt (1817), the first critic to attempt noticing a chink in the armor of King Henry V, and although Hazlitt’s essay often switches between comments pertinent to the historical King Henry V versus the play’s King, he does label the play character “a very amiable monster,” which is at odds with him being referred to in the play as “the mirror of all Christian kings” (2.0.6). During the next hundred years of commentary there arose a few more disparaging comments about the King and the war presented by Shakespeare, including from William Watkiss Lloyd and W.B.Yeats,5 but for those who see something beyond a gung-ho war lay in Henry V, the next definitive milestone in the play’s criticism was from Gerald Gould in the essay quoted above, where he unequivocally states “the play is ironic.” His position was that although the play appears to be celebratory of King Henry and his Agincourt victory, it is actually “a satire on monarchical government, on imperialism, on the baser kinds of ‘patriotism’, and on war.” And although commentators by no means jumped onboard Gould’s bandwagon, from this point on a review of the criticism on the play will clearly show a noticeable concern with the protagonist King Henry, his actions and his character, and with the war, from the cause and effect of it, to how it is presented. For almost three hundred years the play had been almost beyond reproach seen as a patriotic panegyric to a heroic king and his impossible victory at Agincourt—George Bernard Shaw even termed it jingoistic—but Gould had definitely thrown down a gauntlet challenging this view that scholars deemed necessary to consider and respond to. If you were of a mind to celebrate English hegemony in martial matters, with an accent on their heroic and noble aspects, Gould’s essay might be seen as analogous to an opening of Pandora’s box: Henry V’s world hasn’t been the same since.
The author lives in the Pacific Northwest and has been reading and studying Shakespeare for many years. He has also written a more broadly ranging essay on the ironic Henry V, “Once More: The Case for a (Mindful) Reading (Ironic) of Henry V” that can also be found free on the Internet, as well as a comprehensive book on the ironic interpretation of Henry V titled, A Genius Hoax: Shakespeare’s Trojan
Horse War Play.