Sunday, September 19, 2010

Discussion: Henry V

The play: The Life of Henry V

The plot tweet: Prince Hal grows up, fights war in France. He wins miraculously and woos French princess, but triumph will be short-lived. Side note: Falstaff is dead.

My favorite line:
Gloucester, 'tis true that we are in great danger;
The greater therefore should our courage be. (King Henry V)

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How strange this play must have seemed to theater-goers in Shakespeare's time. At the end of Henry IV, Part II, they'd been promised another history play featuring the beloved Falstaff -- and then the "fat knight" dies early in the play, off-stage, as barely a side note. And perhaps, as I do, they felt a disconnect between the Prince Hal they'd encountered in the earlier plays and the formal, ceremonious King Henry of this play.

But they must have felt such a swelling of patriotic pride, watching their nation's supposedly miraculous victory at the Battle of Agincourt. It even gets me a little bit, and I'm American.

Perhaps, because of that, they forgave Shakespeare for so unceremoniously killing off such a well-liked character. (I, for one, am not sorry to see him go.)

Henry V has several of Shakespeare's best known lines and speeches, and the playwright skillfully builds tension surrounding the Battle of Agincourt. Yet when I saw this play performed -- last year, at the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin -- it was deflating, like an extended epilogue to the Henry IV plays. We find out what becomes of Hal, Falstaff, Pistol, Mistress Quickly and other familiar characters, and we see the completion of Hal's redemptive cycle. But the play feels vaguely empty, as if Shakespeare were going through the motions to complete his cycle of history plays and tie up loose ends.

One clue that perhaps Shakespeare was being lazy: The chorus that opens each act -- which has always seemed a bit odd to me -- describes every detail of the setting, a job that in most other plays is handled skillfully by the characters themselves, in context.

What do you think? Do you connect with Henry V as a character? Do you miss Falstaff? Is this play merely a history lesson, or is it successful as a dramatic work?

3 comments:

  1. Well, I agree w/ you that I do not miss Falstaff. If he had met his demise earlier, I might feel differently. As for H.V., I am enjoying it. I have not had much time to finish it though. I find myself getting lost in the language and poetry.

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  2. asking for a "friend"September 24, 2010 at 1:20 PM

    Jingoism is always good! :).

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  3. I have to admit - never having read so many of the history plays before - that I'm finding them a bit formulaic: political conflict results in a big battle, followed by some sort of resolution. And around that are some characters intended for pure entertainment, some to say beautiful and noble things, and some simply fill space and become pawns in battle.
    That's the most cynical thing I can say.
    I think Falstaff is at his best in "Merry Wives" where he just gets to do slapstick, which is what he does best. It's a virtual commedia dell'arte piece which he fits into ideally.
    So Henry V is better off without him.
    The Chorus doesn't feel to me like laziness, because I found much of it beautifully written. Actually the most beautiful writing seems to be given to Henry and the Chorus. So to me it comes across more as Shakespeare perhaps keeping himself interested in the task - trying to keep it from being a dry history lesson, giving himself opportunities to simply write a beautiful, inspiring text.
    I'm sure a stage production would benefit from a little judicious cutting, but on the whole I did find it dramatically engaging. (Or perhaps it's just my sentimentality, being it is the history play I have known the longest, and I have other happy memories associated with it!)

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