‘Then every soldier kill his prisoners.’ Kit Harington as Henry V.
Max Webster’s production of Henry V at the Donmar Warehouse promised to examine a riven England and the alternating cast of cynics and inadequates who govern it. The interpretation is still apt, though the genuflections to colonialism and climate change seem like the perfunctory box-ticking of liberal orthodoxy. Other interpretations are now more pressing, and more awkward. This is a war play, the story of an overweening king set on reconquest, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Or is it? Isn’t it also the story of a master rhetorician, a reformed actor-king uniting a fractious nation?
Tucking away their smartphones bearing news of shelled buildings and fleeing civilians, audiences are greeted with an admonitory fragment from Walter Benjamin, projected on the stage’s sheet metal: ‘There is no document of civilisation that is not also a document of barbarism.’ It’s a heavy advert for the play’s doubleness, and a warning against enlisting too easily behind what appears, at first, to be a simple story of national glory recovered – Shakespeare’s most palatable rendition of the English national myth. History by the conquered speaks differently, as the translation of scenes in the French court into surtitled French reminds us.
The epigram might also alert us to Henry himself. A.D. Nuttall once warned there were two ways of reading Henry V unintelligently, either as an untroubled martial epic or as an unremitting satire against war. If so, it has had many unintelligent readers. George Bernard Shaw deplored Shakespeare’s ‘jingo hero’; William Hazlitt, a sharper critic, thought Henry a ‘very amiable monster’. Nuttall saw Henry as a ‘white machiavel’, for whom amiableness and monstrosity are just two politic faces of the king, deployed with dispassionate intelligence to secure and reorder his kingdom. Power seen up close invariably provokes ethical disquiet.
Shakespeare’s Henry has Richard II’s understanding of symbolic power without being trapped in its mirrors, ‘enfeoff’d to popularity’. He is every inch the ‘vile politician’ his father was, but without the taint of usurpation. He has inherited legitimately, more or less. His rapid dispatch of plotters against his throne attests to his mastery of both his predecessors’ virtues: orchestrated regal theatre in the service of political consolidation. When the Earl of Cambridge says the ‘gold of France’ was only a catalyst, not a cause, of his part in the assassination plot, it’s a reminder of the civil war that will follow Henry’s reign, and suggests that war in France might be a convenient way to forestall it, unifying the country against a foreign enemy. The political problem is real: those who abhor such machinations are forced to linger on the implied alternative. Webster’s staging, however, suggests Cambridge and the king were once lovers, dissolving the personalised politics of the Plantagenet court into mere personal entanglement.
Casting Kit Harington as Henry offers an implied contrast with the thuddingly virtuous natural monarch he played in Game of Thrones – so virtuous he finally eschewed the kingdom – as well as a means of ensuring post-lockdown ticket sales. As Henry, Harington offers plenty of lion but little discernible fox. The king’s manipulative intelligence, which Auden thought anticipated Iago, has evaporated, leaving a residue of brutality and boosterism. This is one possible Henry, gradually severing all his human ties, but achieved at the cost of bleaching out some of his difficulty.
The king’s speech outside Harfleur, in which he threatens not to leave the city ‘till in her ashes she lies buried’, is lent new terror by its current context – it is almost unwatchable – and Harington doesn’t shy from its violence. It is so vividly figured that you can forget the English army does not, in fact, sack and destroy the city: its surrender is achieved by rhetorical bloodshed. The threat is not idle: the production treats it as a foretaste of Henry’s later order to kill the French prisoners, here conducted by the king himself onstage. But the speech is one of many in which Henry attempts to outsource his culpability, either to the city’s governors (‘you yourselves are cause’) or to his soldiers’ natural violence: ‘What rein can hold licentious wickedness?’ It is a cunning fury.
One problem for directors of Henry V is how to show the king’s metamorphosis from dissolute to dignitary, which forms a strand of the Henry IV plays, and to which the two scheming prelates allude in the opening scene. Webster tries to solve it by importing, as preface to his version, a coked-up night in Eastcheap and Hal’s final rejection of Falstaff. It’s a recovery narrative: the king grows up and gets straight. Henry’s almost immaculate self-control, the violence that lies just beneath his surface, here depend on the repression of his personal vices. The deaths of his former underworld companions stage that repression.
Shakespeare’s sources all seem to agree the king’s reformation is a species of miracle, maybe touched with the magic of the crown. Shakespeare himself isn’t so sure. In an unsettling soliloquy near the start of 1 Henry IV, the prince suggests his sojourn in Eastcheap is a PR stunt, that a staged redemption may better burnish his crown. Critics committed to tidying up Shakespeare’s awkward bits sometimes dismiss this as a prudent deflection of any suspicion of subversive intent on the playwright’s part. It may also echo the labyrinthine self-justifications that addicts concoct for themselves. For Webster and Harington, unruly passions, compulsion, violence boil under the mask of the king, and their repression, however imperfect, gives him his energy. If Auden is right to hear a presentiment of Iago in the young prince, however, the reverse is true: the king’s passions and common appetites are a guise to mask the blank and pitiless face of power.
Critics have it easy. All possible Henries can jostle against each other in a critical reading; staging requires choices. In Henry V the urge to fill the apparent vacuum of the protagonist’s inner world is particularly strong. (Even in his solitary prayer on the eve of Agincourt he is transactional, not anguished.) Recovery and its exigencies are a standard part of Hollywood vocabulary. They offer a 21st-century audience the holy grail of modern culture, the ability to ‘identify’ with a character: maybe kings really are just like the rest of us, and political decisions merely extensions of personality. But Shakespeare had already given us a king beset by human frailty in Henry VI: who doesn’t feel that we too might ‘long and wish to be a subject’ were we thrust into his position? Kings can’t want that, or bloodshed follows. Henry V pivots around the question of what the ‘good’ in ‘Good King Harry’ means, and the answer is closer to the arcana imperii than Narcotics Anonymous.
A purely instrumental Henry might get boring, but his self-control isn’t immaculate. Unlike his courtiers, who justly find it tedious, he is transfixed by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s interminable explanation of Salic law: he is hungry for a pretext he might claim ‘with right and conscience’ for war. (In Nicholas Hytner’s 2003 production, the bishops brandished a dodgy dossier.) The two terms matter to him, both politically and personally – which may be the same thing. Yet Harington’s Henry struggles to stay awake.
Shakespeare’s kings sleep badly. Henry’s wandering through the English camp in disguise the night before Agincourt is the play’s most ethically precipitous moment, and gives Henry his most intelligent on-stage audience. The common soldier Williams knows that kings are different from the rest of us – they get ransomed if captured – and refuses the disguised Henry’s various attempts to praise his own cause, or shift blame from the crown. He conjures the play’s most arresting image, ‘the legs and arms and heads chopped off in a battle’ joining together at Judgment Day, crying for the wives and children left without them, in accusation at the king.
Henry answers with casuistry. His later meditation on the arbitrariness of kingship would seem like peevish special pleading if it didn’t also reflect on the starkness of absolute rule:
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol ceremony?
Falstaff’s ghost (‘what is that honour? Air’) seems, momentarily, to speak through Henry. The play never really recovers from Williams’s speech, unless the answer is simply that success is its own justification. Everybody knows how these episodes are supposed to end: the king reveals himself, rewards the good and punishes the wicked. Some of the drama comes from wondering which category Williams will fall into for the nettled king. The common man’s last line – directed at whom is uncertain – as Henry rewards him with a glove stuffed with coin resists the comic ending: ‘I’ll none of your money.’
An unintelligent anti-war reading, Nuttall says, might come from finding Henry’s pretexts thin and his actions brutal and self-serving, imagining we have discovered something Shakespeare wanted to conceal from us, rather than the premise of the questions he wants us to ask about power. I fear, just now, I am in the camp of the unintelligent: I wanted the claptrap of the St Crispin’s Day speech, delivered at its most martial and tubthumping, to turn to ashes in Henry’s mouth. Like Hazlitt, I can see the bodies pile up in the orchestra pit. As the actors collected for Ukrainian relief after the play, I wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to take a tag line not from Benjamin but Adorno: ‘No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.’