The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0273  Friday, 7 October 2011

From:         Mark Alcamo <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         October 7, 2011 10:50:00 AM EDT

Subject:      Ironic Henry V


Please allow me to start off by apologizing if my posts have seemed nonsensical, disjointed and/or inappropriate thus far.  My hope had been to generate some interest and/or wonder about the subject - in my case, Henry V.  That said, I also apologize in advance for the length of this post, but my hope again is to try to clear up where I’m coming from and where I am suggesting it is important scholarship take a well-considered look to.


Simply put:  I hope to generate some interest in looking at an ironic reading of Henry V.  Readers may be familiar with this ‘interpretation’ essentially begun by Gerald Gould in a 1919 essay, A New Reading of Henry V.  This view was later endorsed by a number of Commentators such as Harold Goddard, Roy Battenhouse, and Ralph Berry, but in the last 30 years the well has been relatively dry; (I've only found two essays defending the view since Rabkin's well-known Rabbits and Ducks essay in 1981).


I believe I've made substantive headway in this reading, and I want to share it in this forum with the expressed hope that many of you have influence over the direction of Shakespeare studies: how Shakespeare is read, thought about and taught, and that you might see the merit in what I am presenting.  So here is a thumbnail summary of what I’m advocating:


If you could summarize a consensus view of Henry V today it would probably be that the play largely, even epically, celebrates King Henry and his victory at Agincourt.  But- Shakespeare being a realist and understanding the complexities of the real world tempers this with undercutting ironies.  Today’s view actually contrasts with the first 300 years of 'Shakespeare’ where it was usually presented as an unabashed Celebration of glorious war and British superiority over the archrival French, (ala Olivier propaganda-wise kicking Hitler in the butt via his Henry V movie.)


The ironic commentators mentioned above have typically made their case via arguments about character and plot observations.  Ergo, (being Shakespeare the playwright), you might think of the debate as


1- ‘Staged’ - The play theatrically easily stages as a panegyric celebration of the King and his Agincourt victory; with some realistic ironic underbrush to fill out the scenery.


2- ‘Paged (ironic view)’ - More thought applied to theatrical considerations of plot and character reveal many ironic undercurrents in the play.  Several commentators experience the ironies to such an extent that they decide the Author must have intended an ironic view of the action on stage.  IOW - the outward appearance is one thing, Stage Celebration, while the playwright underneath has a more subversive ironic intent.  (We might note that we know Shakespeare as being very interested in, (and adept at showing), the theme of appearance verses reality.)


I am now suggesting I’ve made further penetration into the play via a close reading of the play more as literature than strictly for theatrical presentation, watching for,


3- ‘Word-conscious’ Poetic Ironies - What I found in studying the play provides extensive support for the ironic reading, but I found much of this ‘evidence’ as ‘poetic and literal’, beyond (over and above) what is being staged ‘in-the-moment’ of the ephemeral footlights; you might think of it as meta-dramatic or meta-theatrical ironic reflections on the stagecraft.  I’m advocating a ‘close reading’ that pays particular attention to words and subsequent actions . . .  and then drawing your own conclusions.  You might think of this as Shakespeare the Poet writing verses Shakespeare the playwright.  IOW- I confess, as all ironic views must, I am appropriating ‘Shakespeare’s voice’ in asserting an ironic intent for the work.


I've done a very close reading of the play ‘prepared’ to tune in to ironies and a significant amount of the language 'divulges' a playwright who is using irony, (the ‘dry mock’ per Puttenham), to intentionally undercut (and mock) the Early Modern notions of glorious war and the nobility of 'God's anointed', etc.  I'm afraid I believe this will become a significant finding needing serious scholarly consideration in studies of Shakespeare.  For starters, could Shakespeare actually be more 'chill' than 'shill' toward the monarchy?   My simple hope is to put it before the academic community for vetting  and consideration - and as I mentioned in my first post, I am building a website that I hope teachers and others interested will use as a resource when considering the play.


Let me start off by stating I am already aware of the resistance to the idea of ‘knowing‘ what Shakespeare thinks of something.  For this play - a touchstone in the debate - you will easily find much more commentary refuting the ironic view than supporting it.  Objections tend toward two views, 1. it’s ‘un-Elizabethan’ to be critical of dynastic war or the highly esteemed historical King Henry V, and 2. an ironic view is reductionist and diminishes the Art - by definition it doesn’t appreciate the complexity of what’s presented.


To the first objection, I suggest it’s always dangerous to assign blanket sentiments to an entire population, and it is particularly peculiar to pigeon hole one of the great geniuses of the last millennium in this manner.


The second objection seems more reasonable, but I also found via my own ‘Reader Response’ experience with the play, ‘allowing‘ the precedence and ascendency of the ironies, that the play is actually enriched by the ironic choice.  It’s my belief many others who try this will find the same.  But addressing this concern further, I’d like to provide a quote from Wayne Booth's A Rhetoric of Irony (1975) that I believe makes the necessary point,


'I spend a good deal of my professional life deploring ‘polar’ thinking, reductive dichotomies, either-or disjunctions.  And here I find myself saying that only in strict polar decisions can one kind of reading be properly performed.  On the one hand, some of the greatest intellectual and artistic achievements seem to come when we learn how to say both-and, not either-or, when we see that people and works of art are too complex for simple true-false tests.  Yet here I am saying that some of our most important literary experiences are designed precisely to demand flat and absolute choices, saying that in fact the sudden plain irreducible ‘no’ of the first step in ironic reconstruction is one of our most precious literary moments.'  (p. 128, my bold italics)


It's probably no coincidence that he used the very same 'optical illusion' of rabbit and duck as Rabkin does a few years later, except where Rabkin asserts either/or, Booth says you have to take that step (up) and recognize the Author's drawing a duck.  And when you ask, 'Why a duck?', I think Shakespeare is saying 'Gee, (it's ironic) we dress war up as noble and glorious and right . . . but as a mirror of a (supposedly) Christian King, maybe we should recognize it leaves something to be desired.  IOW - how well do the Christian King’s ‘new man’ clothes honestly look ‘when he walks’?  It’s a very simple ‘Word verses deed’ question.  To quote Gerald Gould from his 1919 essay,


Henry V is a satire on monarchical government, on imperialism, on the baser kinds of ‘patriotism’, and on war.


IOW, I DO believe Shakespeare is 'mocking true things' (Christian hopes for peace on earth, etc.) 'by what their mockeries be' (Kings parading themselves as pious ministers of God's justice, etc.).  I know what a stretch this is asking (today), but in Henry V, I believe Shakespeare is intentionally weaving a near-imperceptible fabric of irony throughout the play - Vulcan's revenge for Mars getting Venus' affections . . .  I hope my ironic glosses will get people curious about this approach.


If I might, I’d also like to address a few of the responses to my posts thus far, only to hopefully clarify what I am saying:


‘a Table of greene fields’ :  My main thought was I’d introduce my topic with what I thought was an interesting finding but I think my intent has been largely missed.  For starters, any conscientious editor will say they only emend what seems ‘unintelligible’.  I found it interesting to find an actual extant table that is easily, poetically, described as a table of greene fields in the context of this speech recounting the death of Falstaff (a knight) by a distraught Mistress Quickly.  I especially ‘liked’ it because the image reinforces the evident memento mori aspect of the speech summarized by crying out loud, God, God, God, three or four times . . .  besides the poignant and affectionate sentiments.  We’re left wondering about the disposition of the large man’s considered soul, recognizing Falstaff has probably fallen short of meeting those chivalric ideals conveniently iconically represented when ‘looking up’ at the Winchester Round Table.  So please allow me to acknowledge an indubitable Truth: many, many Commentators prefer Theobald’s emendation to the First Folio wording, and evidently even more so given the existence of the Winchester Round Table.  This is obviously fine by me, and I readily acknowledge performing artists are free to interpret Shakespeare however they care, if the actress playing Mistress Quickly can’t work up getting choked up about Falstaff’s death than I’d suggest Theobald’s emendation is definitely the way to go.  Please let me confess I think myriad-minded Shakespeare is quite effective at painting wonderful word pictures which he plumbs from his wellspring depths or which flowed spontaneously from his white hot creative imagination which give us many images to think over.  I actually enjoy all the often cited imagery he uses in this one speech, oblique allusions conflated and woven together leaving us a very touching speech - Arthur as a malaprop for Abraham is great, but that doesn’t mean we need to discount the Arthur-Table and God-God-God . . .  connection.  Commentators have read allusions to the 23rd Psalm, physical signs of death, (nose growing thin and greenish complexion), and Socrates dying from ingesting hemlock - all these sound fine and theatrically appropriate.  Poetically, I’m not insisting on a connection between Socrates’ genius and the memorial Shakespeare, but it’s interesting to consider a parallel between the death of Shakespeare’s creation, Falstaff, and that Socrates was known for his non-conformance views about the State, (and a certain penchant for being dumb-ironic).  I refer to the OED online all the time, but when it’s referred to as an objection to a poetic analogy of a table top to a field, I think we’re possibly discounting what Shakespeare may very well have written on a technicality.  If we were to stoop so low as to question each and every poetic image Shakespeare creates against an OED validation, I’m afraid the outcome would be incredibly disappointing.


‘The King is butt a man, ass I am . . .’ : Here again, I’m honestly surprised that once the wordplay is pointed out, that it could be termed extremely improbable and discounted as obscure and forced because stoup doesn’t rhyme with poop until 1889.  The fault may be mine because I am a big believer in Dr Johnson’s observation that you always give too much to some and not enough to others, but that the mind enjoys the discovery more when it finds things out on its own.  I’ve presumed I’m dealing with a very intelligent audience here, so I have intentionally avoided pedantic glossing.  Butt in review: this portion of the speech is an extended poetic word-association wordplay image: King-butt-ass-violent smell: ‘in his Nakednesse he appeares butt a man.‘  (Shakespeare is actually conscious of the words he uses - couldn't he imagine the King 'just' a man? - it dates from 1551.)  Falcon imagery is fine with me, but mounted higher may easily refer to a King’s affection for his throne, and emanations from the rear, whether gaseous or solid, both tend to take like wing - this is classic bawdy Shakespeare attired in Chaucer-wear.  We might say ‘the King puts his pants on the same way as us’, Shakespeare says he drops his trousers just like us.  And my point from earlier is, this is 'extra-meta-dramatic-theatrical'.  Shakespeare intends the King is unconscious of the wordplay he is making him annunciate trippingly off the tongue.  You can readily watch both Olivier and Branagh give this speech, both excellent performances for the theater.  I do NOT suggest the King should be fanning his rear or the soldiers should be sniffing about the air for the source of their consternation.  The King is having a serious talk with his common soldiers the evening before the big battle and he makes references to falconry to allay their concerns.  Edward Bulwer-Lytton might write, ‘the fear in the air was palpable’, but Shakespeare under the darkness of night, cuts loose with what I view is a very funny M-o-c-k of the King - 100% appropriate from the pen of an ironic poet-playwright reflecting on ‘who’ was responsible for their current moist-unfortunate situation.  Maybe my sense of humour is too stilted, but I think it’s pretty funny to consider the superimposed wit here:  It’s the King (disguised) speaking wittily of his self-effacing humble self, unconscious of the actual wit Shakespeare has emanating from his mouth.  I suppose Freudian commentators may say the King was aware of his fear, but was unconscious of the slips he made, inadvertently expressing it.  Now, I expressly stated you could not make a stoup and poop connection OED-wise, (although ‘poop’ and farting dates from 1689), but I honestly believe if we could time-travel a team of Clinical Psychologists back to Shakespeare’s day and ask them to research Elizabethans  ‘demonstrating’ stoup, a significant proportion would show a movement similar as to when preparing to defecate.  As far as stoup rhyming with poop, I ask you possibly indulge Shakespeare was the cause of wit in others.  


Shakespeare and War; edited by Ros King and Paul J.C.M. Franssen (2008) opens with an essay by the editors which gives an anecdote about a Sergeant Hutton who’d read the play and believed Shakespeare had been in the Army because of the play’s truth for him,


‘Ye knaw them three - Bates, an’ them, talking afore the battle?  Ye doan’t git that frae lissening’ in pubs, son.  Naw, ’e’s bin theer ... An’ them others - the Frenchmen, the nawblmen, tryin to kid on that they couldn’t care less, w’en they’re shittin’ blue lights?  Girraway! ... ‘There’s nut many dies weel that dies in a battle.’


Sergeant Hutton, being a WWII veteran, may no longer be with us to discuss pre-battle nerves, but we might find some consolation about the idea of involuntarily losing control of one’s bodily functions out of fear by referring to our trusty OED:   


a1450    Castle Perseverance (1969) l. 1968   fiei schul schytyn for fere.  [shit for fear]


...  But the bottom line in the King is but a man (wordplay) speech is, I believe, Shakespeare is doing what he's not suppose to do - peeking out from behind his Iron Mask.


Thank you,

Mark Alcamo

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