Hopefully you’re joining us already prepped on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. What it is, what it does, how utterly massive it is for a theater festival, etc. If not, check out Part 1 of this double feature. However, if you already know, then on we go!
HENRY V is…an interesting play. Interesting for several reasons, the most peculiar being that I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who said that this was their favorite Shakespeare play. I have met people who loveto talk about this text, though. Love to. Three years of university spent studying Shakespeare, this play came up every time. And let me make it perfectly clear…being a worthy discussion topic 400 years after being written is a good reason to see a play.
So go see it. I’ll say that now. HENRY V is a staple in Shakespeare’s canon, the production is on a classic Elizabethan stage setting, and the quality of the performance is incredibly solid. I’m doing my best to keep comparisons out of it regarding Parts One and Two, but where ROMEO AND JULIET rocked the entertainment value, HENRY V steams through in showcasing actors’ ‘Shakespeare chops’. It is worthwhile, it’s a good experience, go have fun.
Now let’s address those elements so worth discussing, and I’ll do my best to not make this seem nitpicky, because I don’t want you getting the impression that I dislike this play. In fact, in order to keep it short, I’m going to umbrella that which problematizes this text, that which sets HENRY V apart from the rest of Shakespeare’s work, and I shall call this umbrella, the ‘sell-out’…brella.
The first observation to make is that this is one of Shakespeare’s most morally and dramatically ‘black-and-white’ texts. See, the reason Shakespeare as a discussion source hasn’t tapped out yet is because of Shakespeare’s affinity for ‘the grey zone’. That morally ambiguous, poetic justice leaning, dynamic character building, beautiful, beautiful grey zone. Remember Shylock, from MERCHANT OF VENICE? Probably one of Shakespeare’s most evil characters (pardon the anti-Semitism), yet even he was a just a business man making an agreed upon and therefore legitimate business deal. Isabella in MEASURE FOR MEASURE, raises the question, ‘do you sleep with one man to save the life of your brother’? There’s a reason they called that one a problem play. Ambiguity, especially moral ambiguity, is extremely prevalent in the majority of Shakespeare’s texts, because he was a really good playwright. He could do better than one-dimensional characters, and he could do better than one-dimensional storylines.
And then there’s HENRY V, where the French are rubbish and Henry is awesome. Really awesome. Not like how he was in HENRY IV when he was woefully immature (there’s even a speech about how woefully immature he used to be in the beginning of HENRY V). Now he’s Anglo-Jesus, ridding the world of pompous, horse-loving French people. There’s not much ambiguity there, neither in character nor plot, so why does it still spark so much discussion? Because that’s not how Shakespeare plays normally work! This is an outlier, an anomaly. Why has this happened?
The second observation to make concerning the text is a certain lack of unity. Another rarity for Shakespeare. Perhaps the material itself, the vastness of the story to be told, was just too much (even for the Bard). The scenes jump in time and location during almost every transition, between France and England and a bar and a battlefield, and all the while with a chorus member apologizing for the nature of the Elizabethan theater style. We are implored to use our imaginations to picture battles and time passing…but when did Shakespeare become so self-conscious regarding such a widely accepted style of theater? A style that he had already achieved monumental success with, as well! The Elizabethan style of ‘assumed location’ is familiar to everyone, why does it need to be apologized for? Yes, there’s not a great transitional flow in such a dramatic changing of scene and time, but you’re Shakespeare, and it’s a red flag for us if you suddenly get wary of the discourse.
So there we have two anomalies, present in the same text, suggesting that Shakespeare was either not comfortable writing this play, or it wasn’t his natural voice and approach for style. Both options lead us back to our problematizing umbrella, which you may stand under, or not, as you choose.