It is with great sadness that I put Henry V back on my shelf. I will be reading Macbeth next, but I figured I had a least one post left in me before I changed genres so completely.
The question that begs to be answered at the end of Henry V is…well, is he a good king?
My answer is yes. Although Hal is not always a good Christian king, he is a good king.
CHORUS O, now, who will behold
The royal captain of this ruined band
Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent,
Let him cry, “Praise and glory on his head!”
For forth he goes and visits all his host,
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile
And calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;
Nor doth he dedicate one jot of color
Unto the weary and all-watchèd night,
But freshly looks, and overbears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
A largess universal, like the sun.
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.
For me (and for you, if you’ve been keeping up with my interpretation of Hal), this behavior is expected. Hal has always been good-natured – this quality of his was evident to me even when I was just a teenager and he was a troublesome prince in Henry IV.
Ultimately, it is his inherent kindness, and not his faith, that makes him a good king. His faith isn’t the reason soldiers feel so connected to him at all – Hal is the reason. He has always been personable, and even though the court looked down on him when he was young, they can’t help but love him now that all of his kindness is being directed toward them.
He tries very hard to be a noticeably Christian king, because that’s the ideal, isn’t it? It’s no secret that being king stresses Hal out – and I don’t think it’s just because he’s responsible for all of England. It’s also because of all the expectations the other nobles have of him. It’s because he’s also trying desperately to leave his past behind, when what he really should be doing is coming to peace with it.
I think if I could dedicate my life to studying one play, I would choose Henry V. People who know me well would be shocked, I’m sure, because my adoration for Richard III is well advertised. But Richard was easy for me to analyze. Hal, meanwhile, has always presented me with challenges. There are days where I feel like my interpretation is falling apart, and others where I read a few lines and see everything shift back into place.
And, truth be told, the reason I go out of my way to weave such a complicated web on his behalf is because I love him in a very pure, protective way. It would be difficult for me to write off his past because in the midst of all the irresponsibility and immaturity, I manage to see good qualities as well. And because I think those good qualities are a fundamental part of Hal – as a person, not as royalty – I think it is worth trying to tie them into who he is as king. And I am not just talking about how kind he is – I’m also talking about the playful and mischievous parts of him that give him his charm and make him a stand-out character.
No matter the interpretation you follow, there is one thing we can agree upon: the reason Hal is so well-loved by the people around him, and the reason he is seen as such a wonderful king, is because he tries.
And, sometimes, that’s all you can ask of a person.
Henry V, a play very much filled with bloodshed and tension, ends on a surprisingly charming note. But it doesn’t have to.
Hal asks to be left alone with Katherine, the Dauphin’s sister and Princess of France. Alice, Katherine’s attendant, also stays behind with them.
KING HENRY Fair Katherine, and most fair,
Will you vouchsafe to teach a soldier terms
Such as will enter a lady’s ear
And plead his love suit to her gentle heart?
Let us make one thing clear: Katherine is going to marry Hal whether she likes it or not. She is a crucial component of the Treaty of Troyes. So, when it really comes down to it, Hal doesn’t have to do this. He doesn’t have to try to woo her.
But he does anyway.
KATHERINE Your majesty shall mock at me. I cannot speak your England.
KING HENRY O fair Katherine, if you will love me soundly with your French heart, I will be glad to hear you confess it brokenly with your English tongue. Do you like me, Kate?
KATHERINE Pardonnez-moi, I cannot tell what is “like me.”
KING HENRY An angel is like you, Kate, and you are like an angel.
KATHERINE Que dit-il? Que je suis semblable à les anges?
ALICE Oui, vraiment, sauf vostre grace, ainsi dit-il.
KING HENRY I said so, dear Katherine, and I must not blush to affirm it.
KATHERINE O bon Dieu! les langues des hommes sont pleine de tromperies.
KING HENRY What says she, fair one? that the tongues of men are full of deceits?
ALICE Oui, dat de tongues of de mans is be full of deceits. Dat is de princesse.
That is the princess indeed! Katherine is not swept away by Hal’s eager attempts at wooing. We only see Katherine twice in this play – once when she asks Alice to teach her to speak English, and once when she has to suffer through Hal’s laughable (yet sweet) proposal. I love her despite this – she shines in both scenes, and the personality traits we actually do get to see are amazing.
We have established by now that this scene does not have to happen. And yet, Hal continues to woo Katherine, and makes a right fool of himself in the process. Why is he doing this?
Well, because he is who he is. I know that isn’t a good answer, but it’s the best answer I can come up with. Hal, who is always seeking validation (probably because he got very little of it from his father), would much rather Katherine like him even if she is being forced to marry him. And despite all of his flaws, Hal is good. He is good, and kind, and this is his opportunity to show Katherine that she isn’t marrying a monster.
KING HENRY Marry, if you would put me to verses or to dance for your sake, Kate, why, you undid me. For the one I have neither words nor measure; and for the other I have no measure in strength. If I could win a lady at leapfrog, or by vaulting into my saddle with my armor on my back, under the correction of bragging be it spoken, I should quickly leap into a wife. Or if I might buffet for my love, or bound my horse for her favors, I could lay on like a butcher and sit like a jackanapes, never off. But, before God, Kate, I cannot look greenly, not gasp out my eloquence, nor I have no cunning in protestation, only downright oaths which I never use till urged, nor even break for urging. If thou canst love a fellow of this temper, Kate, whose face is not worth sunburning, that never looks in his glass for love of anything he sees there, let thine eye be thy cook. I speak to thee plain soldier. If thou canst love me for this, take me; if not, to say to thee that I shall die, is true; but for thy love, by the Lord, no; yet I love thee too. And while thou liv’st, dear Kate, take a fellow of plain and uncoined constancy, for he perforce must do thee right, because he hath not the gift to woo in other places. For these fellows of infinite tongue that can rhyme themselves into ladies’ favors, they do always reason themselves out again. What! A speaker is but a prater; a rhyme is but a ballad. A good leg will fall, a straight back will stoop, a black beard will turn white, a curled pate will grow bald, a fair face will wither, a full eye will wax hollow; but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon; or rather, the sun, and not the moon, for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps his course truly. If thou would have such a one, take me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king. And what say’st thou then to my love? Speak, my fair, and fairly, I pray thee.
Hal is always prone to rambling, but you really feel it in this scene. But you don’t mind because he is being so humble. And honest – I think if this scene shows us anything, it’s Hal’s true personality. But where is the playful and mischievous streak that I keep claiming he hasn’t lost? Be patient, it’ll show.
KATHERINE Is it possible dat I should love de ennemie of France?
KING HENRY No, it is not possible you should love the enemy of France, Kate; but in loving me you should love the friend of France, for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it – I will have it all mine. And, Kate, when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine.
Won’t part with a village of it, he says. A silly line that always has me rolling my eyes. Katherine, however, doesn’t understand what he’s getting at.
KATHERINE I cannot tell wat is dat.
KING HENRY No, Kate? I will tell thee in French, which I am sure will hang upon my tongue like a new-married wife about her husband’s neck, hardly to be shook off. Je quand sur le possession de France, et quand vous avez possession de moi (let me see, what then? Saint Denis be my speed!), donc vostre est France et vous estes mienne. It is easy for me, Kate, to conquer the kingdom as to speak so much more French. I shall never move thee in French, unless it be to laugh at me.
No matter how you feel about Hal as a character, this exchange softens your heart. Every production of Henry V I’ve seen has had Hal trip over the French he tries to speak – and it’s so charming and so earnest that you can’t help but feel a bit in love with him yourself. I love the last line, “I shall never move thee in French, unless it be to laugh at me,” because he always says it so good-naturedly. Every time Katherine laughs, he laughs or smiles along with her, even if she is laughing at his awful French.
When Hal asks again if Katherine can love him, this happens:
KATHERINE I cannot tell.
KING HENRY Can any of your neighbors tell, Kate? I’ll ask them. Come, I know thou lovest me; and at night when you come into your closet, you’ll question this gentlewoman about me, and I know, Kate, you will to her dispraise those parts in me that you love with your heart; but, good Kate, mock me mercifully, the rather, gentle princess, because I love thee cruelly.
He continues for a few lines after this – actually, he gets carried away for a minute, thinking about the kind of children he and Katherine will have. But that isn’t important. What’s important is the playful nature this exchange has taken on. See? I told you he never fully got rid of that streak. It moves from playful to sweet, of course, because he is still trying to woo her.
Before Katherine finally agrees to the marriage, Hal calls her “la plus belle Katherine du monde, mon trèscher et devin déesse.” It is not an important line to pick out, but I’ll do so anyway because it always makes me smile. I can hear him tripping over his words, trying so hard to charm her – and if the production has Katherine laugh every time he speaks French, all the better. At this point, she is always charmed. And, truth be told, so am I.
Now, back to the proposal that Katherine has just agreed to.
KING HENRY Upon that, I kiss your hand and I call you my queen.
KATHERINE Laissez, mon seigneur, laissez, laissez! Ma foi, je ne veux point que vous abaissiez vostre grandeur en baisant le main d’une de vostre seigneurie indigne serviteur. Excusez-moi, je vous supplie, mon très-puissant seigneur.
KING HENRY Then I will kiss your lips, Kate.
Ah, mischief! There it is. Katherine has just told him that she does not wish him to lower his dignity by kissing the hand of someone lower in rank than he is. So Hal, being the fundamentally mischievous person he is, says that he’ll kiss her lips instead.
How could anybody think that he’d changed completely? Hal says things like this because of who he was – not because of who he has become in this play. Despite everything, he still has a bit of rascal left in him.
KATHERINE Les dames et demoiselles pour estre baisée devant leur nopces, il n’est pas la coutume de France.
KING HENRY Madam my interpreter, what says she?
ALICE Dat it is not be fashon pour le ladies of France – I cannot tell what is “baiser” en Anglish.
KING HENRY To kiss.
ALICE Your majestee entendre bettre que moi.
KING HENRY It is not a fashion for the maids in France to kiss before they are married, would she say?
ALICE Oui, vraiment.
KING HENRY O, Kate, nice customs curtsy to great kings. Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country’s fashion. We are the makers of manners, Kate; and the liberty that follows our places stops the mouth of all findfaults, as I will do yours for upholding the nice fashion of your country in denying me a kiss. Therefore patiently, and yielding. [Kisses her.]
Such puckish behavior for a king. Anybody who sees Henry as an all-serious Christian king is doing him a disservice. In this awkward scene alone, we can see so many facets of his personality. It reminds us of his age, who he was, and who he is now.
KING HENRY You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate. There is more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the tongues of the French Council, and they should sooner persuade Harry of England than a general petition of monarchs. Here comes your father.
The delivery of “here comes your father,” is always so entertaining to me – Hal always moves away from Katherine posthaste. He sometimes rushes back to retrieve his crown, having taken it off while he was speaking to Katherine. He straightens his doublet, and keeps a respectable distance from the princess.
And, if you’ve been following my interpretation of Hal’s character, this is exactly the kind of behavior we should expect from him. In front of the other nobles, he transforms into King Henry. Katherine, luckily, was speaking to Hal.
Hal does indeed change between Henry IV and Henry V. He does become more mature. But that doesn’t mean that he has to lose everything about who he was. Circumstances change him, that much is true, but underneath all those kingly qualities, Hal is still mostly just Hal. He is older, wiser, but still playful and prone to making trouble.
It’s no wonder that Katherine can’t help but fall in love.
In act four of Henry V, Hal puts on a cloak and ventures into the night. His troops are sick, hungry and tired, and a battle awaits them come dawn. Hal approaches them in disguise, and wants to know their opinion of the king and his cause.
Hal is the sort of character who seems to constantly seek validation. The reason for this – and you’ll soon grow tired of me saying this again and again – is because he is incredibly insecure. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter what his soldiers think of him now. That is, it shouldn’t matter. But it matters to Hal, and so he goes out and investigates.
He isn’t too pleased with what he’s told.
WILLIAMS But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, “We died at such a place,” some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeared there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.
This is bullshit – or at least it is according to Hal. His impassioned response boils down to: why should the king be responsible for his soldiers’ souls? If, before they joined the army, they were awful people, what is it to Hal? Why would he be responsible for how they get judged after being slain on the field?
Is this the response of a good Christian king?
Probably not. A king should feel responsible for his soldiers – souls and all. But, Hal – poor Hal – has so much on his shoulders. He feels responsible for so much that he just cannot be responsible for this too. He shrugs off this responsibility in order to stay sane, and because he wouldn’t be able to deal with the guilt.
Because he is in disguise, Hal is very much himself in this scene. He speaks freely because nobody from the court is looming over him. And, in true Hal fashion, he causes a bit of trouble.
When the other soldiers leave, Hal speaks.
KING HENRY Upon the king! Let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins, lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
And what have kings that private men have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol Ceremony?
This speech begins bitterly, and then develops a sad, reflective quality. I always say that Hal is stressed – and this proves it. Isn’t it ironic that the king – the most pampered individual in all of England – should feel like this? All he has that common men don’t, he says, is ceremony. But it doesn’t mean anything to him. It doesn’t save him from the overwhelming responsibility he feels toward his people and his country.
Erpingham finds the king, and tells him that the nobles are looking for him. Hal tells him to take them to his tent – he’ll be there shortly.
KING HENRY O God of battles, steel my soldiers’ hearts,
Possess them not with fear! Take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if th’ opposèd numbers
Pluck their hearts from them. Not today, O Lord,
O, not today, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interrèd new;
And on it have bestowed more contrite tears
Than from it issued forcèd drops of blood.
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a day their withered hands hold up
Toward heaven to pardon blood;
And I have built two chantries,
Where the sad and solemn priests sing still
For Richard’s soul. More will I do:
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Ah, fear. Alone in the cold night, Hal asks God for help with tomorrow’s battle. When he speaks to his troops, his speaks confidently. After all, his cause is true, and his army honorable. But now that he’s alone, he lets his fears out into the darkness. When I saw this play at the Globe, Hal is startled when Gloucester interrupts him. He jumps up, and tugs his doublet down as if he’s trying to straighten himself up. What would the nobles and soldiers think if they saw him like this?
If anything about Henry V is an act, it’s his confidence. Inside of warlike Harry, England’s lion, is – well, Hal. Still young at 28, still not completely separated from his past, and still emotional and unsure.
There are two instances of problematic behavior from Hal in Henry V. I will not pretend that they are not there, but I will attempt to understand why Hal would behave problematically – as a character, he deserves that much.
Early in the play, a messenger appears at Henry V’s court. He has a present from the Dauphin.
KING HENRY What treasure, uncle?
EXETER Tennis balls, my liege.
KING HENRY We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us.
His present and your pains we thank you for.
When we have matched our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturbed
With chases. And we understand him well,
How he comes o’er us with our wilder days,
Not measuring what use we made of them.
We never valued this poor seat of England,
And therefore, living hence, did give ourself
To barbarous license; as ’tis ever common
That men are merriest when they are from home.
But tell the Dauphin I will keep my state,
Be like a king, and show my sail of greatness
When I do rouse me in my throne of France.
For that I have laid by my majesty
And plodded like a man for working days,
But I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us.
And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore-chargèd for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them; for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn.
But this lies all within the will of God,
To whom I do appeal, and in whose name,
Tell you the Dauphin, I am coming on
To venge me as I may, and to put forth
My rightful hand in a well-hallowed cause.
So get you hence in peace. And tell the Dauphin
His jest will savor but of shallow wit
When thousands weep more than did laugh at it.
Convey them with save conduct. Fare you well.
As I have mentioned before, I see Henry V as a relatively insecure character. He knows how people talk about him – about the way he was – and he is not secure in himself even now, as king of England. When these tennis balls arrive, the situation gets out of hand – Hal loses his temper in a way that is very unbecoming for the king. He twists the tennis balls into metaphors for destruction and violence, promising death to France.
Just outside of the French city of Harfleur, this happens:
KING HENRY How yet resolves the governor of the town?
This is the latest parle we will admit:
Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves,
Or like to men proud of destruction
Defy us to our worst; for as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,
If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achièved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie burièd.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and your flow’ring infants.
What is it then to me if impious war,
Arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do with his smirched complexion all fell feats
Enlinked to waste and desolation?
What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
We may as bootless spend our vain command
Upon th’ enragèd soldiers in their spoil
As send precepts to the leviathan
To come ashore. Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command,
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil, and villainy.
If not – why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid?
Or, guilty in defense, be thus destroyed?
Shame, shame! At the gates of Harfleur, Hal threatens the city with rape and murder.
Before moving on, we must ask ourselves: what makes a good Christian king? A good Christian king keeps his emotions in check, lives his life mainly to please God, and shows good Christian qualities such as mercy and kindness.
They say Henry V is a good Christian king. But he loses control of himself when presented with the tennis balls, and he is heartless at Harfleur’s gates. I think there is a reason for this: inexperience.
As I have said before, I believe very much that the shock of losing Henry IV caused Hal to mature faster than he would have otherwise. He now knows what people expect of him – he knows the kind of king they want him to be. And he does try to be that for them. Sometimes, however, he slips up. And those slip-ups range from subtle to glaringly obvious. But he’s still learning! Hal is only 28, and his life before this was one of revelry and fun. Nobody can change so completely to be a scoundrel one day and a perfect Christian monarch the next. I know that, you know that, and Shakespeare knows that.
Now the question is: do these slip-ups change the way I see Hal?
The answer is no. While I, as a modern woman in her 20s, do not appreciate threats of rape and violence, I keep in mind that this campaign happened in 1415 and…Hal doesn’t know how to control himself just yet. He knows what role he has to play as King, yes, but he’s a long way from perfecting it.
I do not want to say those threats are completely empty, because a great many French soldiers died at Agincourt. But I do not think he would have allowed his soldiers to pillage Harfleur – I find that particular threat empty. No matter what play we pick up, be it either of the Henry IVs, or Henry V, I think it is very obvious that Hal has a good heart underneath everything.
He is inexperienced, however, and still learning the ropes. So are the two instances I talked about problematic? Yes. Are they random and out of character? Absolutely not.
I’ve taken the title of this post from Henry IV, Part One. In act two, Prince Hal and Falstaff play a little game. Hal pretends to be his father, the stern and stiff Henry IV. Falstaff pretends to be the Prince.
FALSTAFF But to say I know more harm in him than in myself, were to say more than I know. That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster, that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
PRINCE HENRY I do, I will.
They are interrupted by a knock at the door. Plenty of scenes in the Henriad tetralogy tug at my heart, but none so much as this one does. If the actor plays the role correctly, Hal speaks brokenly – but he does so because he knows what he is saying is true.
But let’s talk about Henry V. I adore Hal – and that’s putting it lightly. His insecurity, his emotional nature, his utter humanness make him an absolutely irresistible character to me. Other people may see him differently, and there’s a reason for this: there are multiple ways to interpret his character. Popular interpretations include ‘he was hiding his good qualities underneath a rebellious guise all along,’ and ‘he was only hanging out with the commoners in previous plays just to understand how the little people live.’
I partially disagree with the first interpretation, and very strongly disagree with the second. I think both of these interpretations do Hal – or Henry, if you’d like to be formal – a great disservice.
So let me talk about my own interpretation of England’s golden boy.
In Henry IV, I see Hal as a rascal – nobody can disagree with that. But why does he behave this way? Why does he hang out with Falstaff and the others, getting drunk and playing tricks while his father disapproves back at the castle?
As always, there is no correct answer. I see Hal as somebody who has always had a playful, fun-loving streak. His father’s disapproval caused him to express these traits with a vengeance. I do not think any of his prior boyish behavior was fake. I think it was very much real. Overplayed at times, sure, but real.
Very early in Henry IV, Part One, we are given an excuse for Hal’s behavior:
PRINCE HENRY I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mist
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work,
But when they seldom come, they wished for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Unfortunately, this excuse comes straight from Hal’s mouth. Because of this, I can simply say that he is going out of his way to justify his actions. By doing this, he absolves himself of any guilt he feels for being so irresponsible, and for being such a disappointment to his father. It’ll all be worth it, he thinks. I’ll look a hundred times better when I change because they’ll only have my past self to compare me to. But if this is truly reason for his behavior, it doesn’t end up playing out in his favor. In Henry V, despite his change, the French Dauphin sees him as a silly boy playing at war. In any case, I think he is trying to make himself feel better. What realistic character would have so much energy so as to put on a guise for so long?
Fast forward to Henry IV’s illness. Hal is high-strung throughout Henry IV, Part Two, and has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Suddenly, everybody expects things of him – they always have, but now he has to deliver. They expect him to rule all of England. Above all, they expect him to shed his past like a snake sheds its skin, and emerge a divine figure, shrouded in light. These expectations place a great deal of stress on Hal, and he responds by sobering up and maturing quite quickly. He now feels responsible for England – and he hears the way people talk. He feels insecure, and he is inexperienced and afraid.
Fortunately, he is very talented with his words. And so, people are convinced that he has changed. That they can depend on him to be a good Christian king.
But what about Hal?
Poor, unhappy Hal, who now suddenly has a crown on his head. Poor Hal, who has to leave behind all the people he’s spent years with and (dare I say it?) loved. His insecurities are so clear to me in Henry V – when the Dauphin mocks him by sending him tennis balls, Hal retaliates because his insecurities are being preyed on. Despite telling the Dauphin’s messenger to speak plainly, because “we are no tyrant, but a Christian king, unto whose grace our passion is as subject as is our wretches fettered in our prisons,” he becomes angry. He claims that he is able to keep his emotions in check, and he does – to a degree. No matter how hard Hal tries, he still slips up every now and again. He is sometimes too emotional, and he takes things too personally.
Let us talk about how he exposes the traitors, Richard Earl of Cambridge, Henry Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey, knight of Northumberland. Instead of being direct with them, he does this:
KING HENRY Who are the late commissioners?
CAMBRIDGE I one, my lord.
Your highness bade me ask for it today.
SCROOP So did you me, my liege.
GREY And I, my royal sovereign.
KING HENRY Then, Richard Earl of Cambridge, there is yours;
There yours, Lord Scroop of Masham; and, sir knight,
Grey of Northumberland, this same is yours.
Read them, and know I know your worthiness.
My Lord of Westmoreland, and uncle Exeter,
We will abroad tonight. – Why, how now, gentlemen?
What see you in those papers that you lose
So much complexion? – Look ye, how they change!
Their cheeks are paper. – Why, what read you there
That hath so cowarded and chased your blood
Out of appearance?
What they are reading, of course, are papers that basically say, “I know you betrayed me.” Henry IV, I think, would have just had them brought before him. He would have lectured them, and then have sent them off to be hung.
But Hal? No, Hal needs to play a trick. I suggested in class that you could say that some of Prince Hal lingers still in King Henry. People may not agree with this. But why not? Why can’t Hal be maintaining a balance between his more immature characteristics, and his newly found kingly traits? Why does Hal have to be either one or the other? Isn’t he human?
I said previously that I partially disagreed with the interpretation of Henry V that says that Hal’s desirable, king-worthy traits were being hidden underneath this rascally guise. The reason I say ‘partially’ is because this interpretation can be taken one of two ways: the person saying this could believe that the trouble-making Hal wasn’t the real Hal (which I think by now you know I disagree with), or they could be saying that Hal has always had mature traits that he hadn’t been expressing. I could agree with the latter – like I said, I have no doubt that Hal went overboard with his antics to get on his father’s nerves. I’m sure deep down inside he was well aware of his responsibilities to the crown. He just wasn’t prepared for things to change so soon.
See, this is what is so wonderful about Hal as a character. No matter how you look at him, you can relate to him. And he makes himself accessible and relatable to his troops – and because of that, they’d follow him into the very depths of hell.
But he really is complicated, isn’t he? There are so many ways to see him. I like my way because I find that it makes him so realistic – like you could just reach into the page and touch him. Only Shakespeare himself knows what the correct interpretation is. Since he’s hanging out in the wooden O in the sky, I suppose we’ll never know. All we can do until then is appreciate the fact that we have a historical play with a crowned character who, despite it all, is still just an unsure young man trying to be the best he can be.
The last two acts of The Merchant of Venice are very short, but also very powerful. Although I feel that I don’t have anything of substance to say about this play myself, I would like to muse on some of the things we discussed in class.
Portia – Portia’s courtroom scene – where she disguises herself as a lawyer, and destroys Shylock – is really the scene where she shines the most. She tries to reason with Shylock, and gives him a lecture on the nature of mercy. Her words have no effect on him, however – he will have Antonio’s pound of flesh no matter what. Portia, being as clever as she is, finds a loophole in the bond: nowhere did the contract state that Shylock would be entitled to collect any blood.
“Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh: But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate unto the state of Venice,” she says.
Shylock quickly backs down – he’ll have the three thousand ducats instead. Bassanio is willing to give him the money, but Portia dishes out justice in an ironically unmerciful fashion. Just before, she had been going on about the divine qualities of mercy. But how is she any better than Shylock now? Shouldn’t she have just let him take his money and leave with his tail between his legs?
This scene doesn’t make me hate Portia, but it does prevent me from really loving her the way I love other stand-out Shakespearean heroines. There is a hypocritical quality about her, unfortunately, that I just cannot overlook.
Shylock – why doesn’t Shylock back down from the bond? My response to this was simple: why should he?
On-stage, Antonio loves to play the poor little victim. I genuinely dislike his character for this reason. Off-stage, it has been said that he has treated Shylock badly for being Jewish. And when they made the contract, it was agreed that this was a contract between enemies.
Somebody suggested that Antonio took the pound of flesh nonsense as a joke – because Shylock couldn’t really be serious could he? If this is true – and it could be played like this, if the actor was so inclined – the fault is still Antonio’s. I say this because I know that Shylock is not the sort of character who says things lightly. When he said the cost would be a pound of Antonio’s flesh, he meant it. And if Antonio has been awful to him in the past, why should he feel sorry for him?
I want to note that I do not think that Shylock is a good person, necessarily. I don’t think he’s 100% bad either. I think he’s very set in his ways and unable to express a lot of emotion (particularly toward Jessica, who I think he does really love in his way). He has clearly suffered a lot of abuse in his life, and so his disposition isn’t really much of a surprise. I think everybody can agree that Shylock isn’t blameless in this play – but I think we can also agree on one important thing: we pity him.
We pity Shylock in a way we do not pity Antonio, or any other character in the play. When he is forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the play, the sadness and anger you feel for him are very difficult to ignore. I do not think Shylock deserved what he got. I think Portia should have just let Bassanio give him the three thousand ducats. I know Shylock would have left filled with shame – and I would have accepted it. But stripping him of everything he has – and even of his Jewish faith – is too much. Because of this, I cannot love any of the characters in this play. I can only pity Shylock.
The merchant – we did not really discuss this in class, but who is the titular merchant of Venice? Many people think it is Antonio, and in my edition of the play, it even lists him as ‘the merchant of Venice,’ in the dramatis personae.
But I think Shylock is the merchant of Venice. Despite his faults, he is one of the most powerful characters in the play. He remains with a reader long after they’ve returned the play to their shelf, and with an audience member long after they’ve left the theatre. I think Shakespeare was very aware of the kind of character he had created – a character powerful and impactful enough to be referenced in the title.
I’d say it is in reference to Antonio…if this were The Martyr of Venice. But it isn’t, so Shylock it is.
Reading The Merchant of Venice proves something that I have always known and sworn by: Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be seen, and not read. Not that reading them is a bad thing – it can be very fun. But seeing a play really makes all the difference.
In 2014, I saw a free production of The Merchant of Venice put on through UC Davis’ Shakespeare on a Shoestring program. I went in with no previous opinion of the play – I didn’t even know what it was about! I vaguely remember enjoying it, but it wasn’t one of my most memorable Shakespearean experiences.
I was surprised when our professor told us to read The Merchant of Venice as part of our block of Shakespearean comedies. Very little about this play is funny to me. The blatant anti-Jewish sentiments expressed throughout only serve to unsettle me. The viewpoints in the play don’t really change my opinion of old Will – he was simply a product of Elizabethan times.
Despite how uncomfortable the play is, Shylock is still a very interesting character. Perhaps the only interesting character, really. It’s very clear that you aren’t supposed to like him – and I don’t. But I don’t hate him, either. I feel such pity for him, even though he still hasn’t made it clear whether he cares more about Jessica or his precious ducats. He lives a tough life, hated mostly because of his faith. It’s sad, and in a sense, you can understand his thirst for revenge.
I enjoyed the scenes in which Portia’s suitors would try to win her hand in marriage. All they had to do was choose the correct chest. Between the three, I knew lead box would contain Portia’s portrait (and therefore her hand in marriage), but it was fun watching those silly men choose the silver and gold chests for silly, selfish reasons. If you can trust Shakespeare to do one thing, it’s to prove time and time again that pride will always lead to man’s downfall.
I do not mind Launcelot as much as I do other fools – mostly because his job isn’t exactly ‘jester.’ He’s just a servant who is short a few brain cells. After reading Twelfth Night and As You Like It, I was reminded of my incredible hatred for Shakespearean fools. Yes, that means I hate Feste. And Touchstone. And literally every fool that I’ve come across. I can’t stand their nonsensical bantering. It takes forever to decipher, and I’m always much more interested in the actual plot of the play than in the silly ramblings of these clowns. Any Shakespeare professor worth his salt will remind you of the importance of fools – and of their observant, witty natures. But I cannot find it in myself to care. We love to analyze Shakespeare – I’m very guilty of this – but the fools always end up being too much of a chore for me. At the end of the day, aren’t these plays meant for entertainment?
I will make another post on The Merchant of Venice once I’ve finished it. After that, I think, we’ll be reading Henry V. And I’ll find myself going once more unto the breach!
Talk about a rushed ending! I just finished reading the last two acts of As You Like It, and much like Twelfth Night, it ended before I realized what was going on.
But let’s talk about Rosalind.
Today in class, the professor asked us what we thought of Rosalind and Orlando’s relationship. My hand shot up before I had my thoughts together.
“It’s what Viola and Orsino’s relationship could have been,” I said. “Rosalind is taking this opportunity to make sure that Orlando treats her the way she deserves to be treated. Viola had that opportunity as well – she just never took advantage of it.”
Nobody disagreed with me. But, our professor said, some people say that Rosalind is being manipulative. I shook my head quite violently. Rosalind, manipulative? I have no doubt that that piece of critique came from the mouth of a man. We all agreed that Rosalind is only working to ensure both her and Orlando’s happiness. Nothing about her trick is mean, unless you go out of your way to see it as such.
“What,” I said, “is wrong with a little guidance?”
Guidance, my professor agreed, was the correct word. Not manipulation. Poor Rosalind! What a terrible criticism of her character, and an unfounded one at that.
Rosalind is the real gem of this play. She orchestrated four marriages at the end – four! Truth be told, the marriage between Oliver and Celia came as quite a shock to me. I know the forest changes people almost instantaneously (and always for the better), but still. Celia is spirited and witty, and nothing about Oliver seems to mesh with her. But, alas, all characters must fall victim to Shakespeare’s obsession with marrying everybody off at the end of a good comedy.
Jaques leaves us in search of a new location for him to whine in. Good bye, Jaques! I wish you’d had fewer lines, you big baby.
Rosalind’s epilogue was quite curious to me. Comedies do not typically have a chorus, so the inclusion of Rosalind’s speech to the audience was a surprise. What is it for? Well, perhaps it is to ease us back into reality. We have been swept away by the Forest of Arden and all it has to offer. But here is a reminder, courtesy of Rosalind, that what we saw was not quite real. She is, in fact, a male actor in women’s clothing, and it’s time for us to come back to reality.
But Rosalind really is wonderful, isn’t she? Gender roles simply do not apply to her – she makes both a man and a woman fall head over heels for her. What’s more, she manages to play matchmaker in the midst of all the nonsense happening in the forest. What a wonderful multi-tasker! And an incredibly self-aware one, at that.
I love Rosalind. Orlando’s pathetic, lovey-dovey poetry did not become her. She knows who she is, and because of this, her marriage to Orlando will be one full of happiness.
Twelfth Night has gone back to my bookshelf, and As You Like It has become the latest victim of my pencil-markings and post-its. This story is a brand new one to me – where I have spent years agonizing over Twelfth Night, I’ve only spent around five hours agonizing over the first three acts of As You Like It.
Let us get what – or rather, who – I do not like out of the way. With every passing act, Jaques has proven to be incredibly annoying. His obsession with dwelling in his melancholy is exhausting, and makes him out to be a fool. His demands to hear more music also brought forth memories of Duke Orsino – memories which I prefer to keep repressed. Let me be plain: Jaques is exactly the kind of person I would reflexively smack across the face. He criticizes so many things, and yet never makes a move to fix them. Instead, he just marinates in a stew of his own tears.
How fortunate we are for Rosalind, then! While Jaques laments non-stop, Rosalind moves to change what she finds worthy of criticism. She is incredibly clever – so much so, that I am already a bit unhappy with the fact that she is going to end up with Orlando. This is Viola and Duke Orsino all over again – except Orlando isn’t nearly as frustrating a character. But why do our witty heroines always end up with such sub-par men? There is no real answer to this, unfortunately. Such is Shakespeare.
What’s really wonderful about Rosalind is that anybody can relate to her. Very easily, in fact. She is cynical about love – and you’ve felt that same cynicism. At the same time, however, she is hopeful, and finds herself simultaneously swept away by her love for Orlando. She is not defined exclusively by her cynicism or her love-sickness – she is human, so she feels both. And who doesn’t? What person hasn’t scoffed at love? And what person hasn’t been seduced by everything love can offer if only given the chance?
Much like Viola, Rosalind finds great freedom through her disguise. She has already convinced Orlando that she can “cure” him of his love-sickness – but only if he calls her by his love’s name: Rosalind. It’s a trick that is played for laughs, but how clever of Rosalind to basically take Orlando under her tutelage, so that she may be treated the way she wants and deserves by play’s end. If only Viola had been so forward with Duke Orsino.
Despite not being a magic-ridden play like The Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is something distinctly magical about As You Like It. Much of it takes place in a forest, and people’s feelings and dispositions change so instantaneously, that you can’t help but think that it’s because of the setting. Who else will the forest inspire to change? Only continuing the play will tell.
I am reading this play at a tumultuous and upsetting time in my life, sadly. But the specific brand of comfort that Shakespeare brings about is so, so welcome. And to think – I would have never gone this far, never delved this deep, had it not been for my tenth grade English class. Back then, I thought that Richard III would be my first and only foray into Shakespeare. I was so wrong.
Twelfth Night ends in a terrible rush – things are sorted in a matter of pages, and everybody runs off to get married. In a way, it is unsatisfying – but only because so many things remain unanswered.
No matter the play, I am always most focused on the characters. That is where my analytical prowess lies – I can always articulate a reason for why characters do what they do, and for why they say what they say. So now I must put my abilities to the test, because some of the things that happen at the end of Twelfth Night have the potential to be absolutely baffling.
Maria marrying Sir Toby Belch – I think we can all agree that Maria is a genius. She is truly this play’s queen of trickery. Toby helps her carry out her plan, of course, but he is not nearly as clever as she is. He likes a good time, and Maria’s elaborate trick pretty much guaranteed a good time. They are married off-stage, and it’s such a disappointment that we hear about it from boring, irrelevant Fabian, of all people. But any reader would wonder why Maria and Toby would get married. Maria is far too clever, Toby likes a good time too much to be tied down by a wife. But consider this: perhaps Maria needs someone who will bow down to her genius, like Toby would. And for him, Maria guarantees good times through her hilarious plots and inclination for trickery. They are both comedic characters, though they exhibit different brands of humor. Perhaps, despite their obvious differences, they’re the dynamic, comedic duo that Illyria has been lacking.
Orsino’s quick acceptance of Viola – Ah, Duke Orsino. How you have tormented me lately. I have found myself more interested in his character than usual, because he truly does remind me of an over-dramatic romantic heroine. I love how, in live productions, he’s always lounging around with his shirt unbuttoned as if he belongs on the cover of a trashy romance novel. But Orsino truly does belong in a trashy romance novel, doesn’t he? He’s all about love that consumes the entire body. His liver is constantly active, his loins are forever aflame!
If you’ll recall, Orsino has a strange debate with Viola/Cesario in the middle of the play. He insists that men love deeply, and that women are only capable of shallow love. He’s an idiot, of course. His words are just a reflection of his own inner turmoil – the reason Olivia doesn’t love him back is because women just can’t love the way he does! It’s not because he’s incredibly annoying, or has an obnoxious flair for the dramatic. It’s because women are just like that. And yet for all his whining about it, he contradicts himself when he transfers his affections from Olivia to Viola before our very eyes.
I think a normal person would have freaked out – “Cesario, you were a woman this entire time?! You tricked me?!” But Orsino sees the following:
a. Olivia is married, and therefore officially off the table
b. This means that he has nobody to pine for, and nobody to suffocate with his undying love
So when Cesario is revealed to be Viola, Orsino jumps on that train without any argument. It allows him to remain in his comfort zone – that is, it allows him to continue to be the kind of person who lives their life in the frame of love. There just isn’t any time for Orsino to undergo some kind of intense personal change. We’re five acts in for God’s sake.
Orsino’s defining trait is that he loves love. He loves being in love. And that never changes, and it doesn’t have to – because despite being one of the most intelligent characters in the play, Viola loves him back. In a sense, this is uncharted territory for Orsino – I mean, when has a woman ever loved him back? It’s something new, and yet allows him to remain partially in his role as the passionate, love-obsessed Duke of Illyria.
This begs the question – would I have been more satisfied if Orsino had undergone some severe character development? The answer, surprisingly, is no. For all my complaints about Orsino as a character, I still need him to remain as he is. I don’t think I could do Twelfth Night without the inclusion of a trashy romance novel-esque Duke. He annoys me, yes, but he also manages to entertain a very small part of me. For shame!
Sebastian marrying Olivia – This happens so fast. So much so, that even Sebastian is like, “Wow, this must be some kind of insane dream!” And he’s absolutely right – it’s totally insane. But why would Sebastian just get married to Olivia?
There is no correct answer. In fact, none of my answers are technically correct because of the nature of Shakespeare. But hear me out: Sebastian is an idiot. Not in the way Orsino is an idiot, no, but an idiot nonetheless.
“But how can you say that?” you cry. “We barely know him!”
Exactly. We’ve had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with Viola. We spend a lot less time with Sebastian. So when I say he’s an idiot, it’s because Shakespeare hasn’t given me reason to think otherwise. He speaks well, and seems to have a good temperament, but having those qualities doesn’t mean that he isn’t a thirsty fool.
That’s all I have for you about Sebastian. He’s a character of very little substance to me, unfortunately. But speaking of Sebastian…
Olivia’s acceptance of Sebastian – Now, if I were Olivia, I would be pissed. She thought she’d married Cesario, the love of her life! Who the hell is Sebastian, am I right?
Olivia never gets to grapple with the realization that Cesario was never real – not as she knew him. I could of course go into themes of sexuality in this play, but I don’t think I’m clever enough to do such a discussion justice. Instead, I’ll say this: much like Orsino, who is happy to suddenly love Viola instead because it allows him to remain somewhat in his comfort zone, Olivia accepts Sebastian because it’s easier to take a Cesario lookalike to her bed than to mourn the loss of her true love. Again, we’re five acts in. There’s no time for such nonsense.
It’s funny – Olivia hates Orsino (same, girl), but at the end of the day, they share a lot of similar qualities.
The ending of Twelfth Night is truly mystifying. Where do I see these characters in the future, you ask? Strangely enough, I see them living happily. I can see Viola enjoying Orsino’s flair for the dramatic, and I can see Orsino enjoying this new thing called being loved back. I can see Sebastian being intrigued by Olivia’s intensity, and I can see Olivia develop an adoration for good-natured, soft-hearted Sebastian, who would likely never do anything to hurt her.
I’ve woven a complicated web, to be sure. But it’s one that has to be woven, because otherwise, characters are simply getting married off to close the play, and for no other reason.
What more can I say? If music be the food of love, play on…!