HENRY IV · HENRY V

ALL HAIL THE KING – OR NOT

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King Henry V of England (Timothée Chalamet) in Netflix’s The King.

I love Henry V.

Not the play (although I do love the play), but the character. In the nine years since reading Henry IV, Part One, and in the seven years since reading Henry V, I have not once forgotten about Hal. I love when stories do that. I love when they are so impactful that they become a part of you, sinking into your bones and finding a permanent place in your already crowded heart.

I love Hal because he is human. He isn’t always good, but he tries. He has a good heart, I think. I am constantly thinking about what it is to be good, and I am constantly trying to be better, but it’s difficult. And I see the same struggle in Hal. I see the desperate desire to be loved and understood – is there anything more human than that?

If you read my Shakespeare Roundup, you already know that I was not impressed with Netflix’s synopsis of The King, a movie that was advertised as an adaptation of the Henriad. I watched it with my best friend of nine years, dressed in fleece pajamas and wrapped in a thick shawl as I tried not to freeze to death in her home in rural New Hampshire.

Pro-tips: do not visit New England in the winter if you can help it, and do not expect The King to be an actual adaptation of the Henriad.

We live in a world of gritty storytelling. I don’t like gritty, though. I like dreamy and hopeful and optimistic. The King is gritty. Not because it’s about war, but because Hal was made a brooding, grumbling prince instead of a fun-loving, rakish disaster of a human being.

This was my first time seeing Timothée Chalamet in a film and I have to say that I was not very impressed. His lines were all whispered, his expressions rarely reactionary, and his overall demeanor very grim. The thing about Hal is that he should be noisy and reactionary and hot blooded. He starts out as a rascal through and through, and then takes the tentative steps from rakish prince to respected king. It is a huge undertaking for an actor, and it’s difficult to get the journey across in two hours.

One of the great defining moments of Hal’s story occurs near the end of Henry IV, Part Two. Hal finally makes peace with his dying father, and I cannot stress how important and deliberate a decision this was on Shakespeare’s part. Hal’s behavior is a result of his tumultuous relationship with Henry IV. If he is not given the opportunity to make amends, then his growth in future plays makes no sense. Think about it: no matter how you slice it, we still see slivers of the rake in Henry V. But Hal is able to mature into a king his father would have approved of because he is no longer resistant to being the person Henry IV pushed for him to be.

The King ripped this reconciliation from my hands, and I whispered an emphatic “oh, no,” as I watched Hal tear the covers off his dying father and metaphorically spit in his face. Henry IV is made to be extra terrible in this movie, and it is done to allow Hal the opportunity to express that he wants to be a different, better king. But how am I, as a viewer, supposed to root for a Hal that is lacking in compassion? I’ve never considered Hal to be a hateful character, not at his core. His great failings are his temper and reactionary nature. Come Henry IV, Part Two, he presents with an undercurrent of melancholy as he begins to navigate the inevitable grief that will come with losing his father.

Because of course there’s grief. There’s a sense of loss, strained relationship or not. He asks Poins in Henry IV, Part Two what he would think of him if he were to grieve his dying father, and Poins tells him he’d think he was playacting. If we are not going to give Hal the opportunity to make amends, then the very least we could do is give him the opportunity to grieve. In The King, he gets neither.

Falstaff outlives his Henriad storyline in The King, becoming Hal’s military adviser. Yes, you read that right: Falstaff is given the all-important job of helping King Henry V of England make decisions. And they stripped him of all his jovial wit, turning him into the perfect match for Chalamet’s brooding Hal. And so, Falstaff is rendered pointless. He adds humor to the Henry IV plays, but also provides Hal with an accepting father figure. For all his failings, and he has many, Falstaff does love Hal. And along with the tension between Hal and Henry IV, Falstaff’s unwavering love and acceptance also play a big role in who the prince is.

Basically, you won’t be seeing this Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor any time soon.

There were two things I did like about The King, and that was Katherine and the Dauphin. Katherine featured for all of five minutes, but I did enjoy the strong front she presented when she finally came face to face with Hal. But, of course, I was robbed of his bumbling, ridiculous proposal scene because The King was made to spite me specifically. Robert Pattinson played a hilarious Dauphin, and I lived for his flowing golden locks. The Dauphin was played with such exaggerated flair that he instantly became my favorite character in the movie. Was Pattinson’s French accent any good? No. Was he threatening in any way? No. Did I immediately want for him to be in every gritty Shakespeare adaptation from this point onward? You bet.

The problem with The King is that it was advertised as an adaptation of the Henriad when it is really no such thing. If Netflix wanted to make a movie about Henry V and his success at Agincourt, they could have done so quite easily. The movie would have been much less of a disappointment if it had been separated from a set of already well-told plays. The material was right there, and they refused to take it.

I do think it is important for us to present Hal the way Shakespeare wrote him. He easily models a positive form of masculinity that other male characters are sometimes lacking. Because we follow him for a whopping three plays, we see him express everything from anger to melancholy to anxiety. The King did not allow Hal these emotions, molding him instead into a caricature of unfeeling, toxic masculinity.

The long and short of it is this: Netflix should have hired me as a character consultant, and all The King does is make me realize just how spectacular the Henriad is. Those plays are a feat of storytelling, and I’m happy to have been reminded of that.

Even if I did have to watch Timothée Chalamet whisper for two hours for the message to come across.

HENRY IV · HENRY V · THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

SHAKESPEARE ROUNDUP

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A cloudy day in Stratford-upon-Avon, 2012.

I have not been reading any Shakespeare lately, but I have been listening, watching, and just absorbing him in all the ways I am able to, and my heart feels so big. I sometimes worry that I’ll forget, or that my feelings will lose their depth, but every time I am pulled back into Shakespeare’s orbit I enjoy the peculiar feeling of my heart inflating like a balloon.

And since I have been engaging in all this fun media, I thought I would do a roundup and talk about some of the things that have been on my mind! It might be the only way to get my heart to shrink down to its original size (a reverse-Grinch, if you will).

Shakespeare Unlimited
Shakespeare Unlimited is the Folger Shakespeare Library’s podcast, and I highly, highly recommend it if you’ve never listened! It isn’t perfect, but every so often you’ll find yourself listening to a total gem. Other times, well…

I had the misfortune of listening to an episode called Steven Berkoff: Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains. I love character-centric episodes because I love to harp on about Shakespeare’s characters! This episode made me so incredibly uncomfortable though, and it has a lot to do with Berkoff’s interpretation of Shylock. They played a clip of his Shylock and I was totally floored by the accent he was putting on. It was, well, terrible.

BOGAEV: How did you decide on that voice for him? Where did that come from?

BERKOFF: Well, I thought part of the reason was that Shylock today has been, and I mention in the piece, homogenized, deodorized, cleaned up, because we don’t like to, you know, infer that we are supporting him, so even some directors cut one or two lines. He says, “I hate him for he is a Christian,” they’ll cut that, they’re so dumb. So I wanted to go the reverse way.

First, I’d like to say that I’ve never seen the line “I hate him for he is a Christian,” cut out of The Merchant of Venice, and the one production I’ve been to was incredibly abridged. Second, is Shylock homogenized, deodorized, and cleaned up? This seems a stretch. All that has changed about The Merchant of Venice is the audience. We now have more empathy toward Shylock because it is a different time and we are different people. Frankly, I found this comment to be a little disrespectful to all the different interpretations of Shylock that have been brought forth by other Jewish actors.

BERKOFF: I didn’t want to, although I could have done, played him as a heroic Jew, they’re the current fashion. The philosophical Jew, the noble Jew, the Fiddler on the Roof Jew, I thought, “I want to play him as the Bard, as Shakespeare, wrote him, as disgusting, rancid, angry, filthy, dangerous.”

Look, Steven Berkoff is Jewish, so I can’t really knock the way he chooses to play Shylock. But I would like to ask how he knows what Shakespeare intended. I promise I am not being facetious. Is the heroic Jewish character really the current fashion?

The Merchant of Venice is a tough nut to crack. Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta was a big box office hit, and Shakespeare was trying to emulate that. But here’s the thing: he could have written a character who was outright disgusting, rancid, filthy, and what have you. He could have written it very clearly. Shakespeare needs no help with words. He’d have known how to do it. He has, after all, given us characters like Iago and Richard III. He knows what evil is.

Instead, he had Shylock challenge the audience, ask the Christians in this play to explain the logic behind their racism. I do not know what Shakespeare’s view on Jewish people was. I have no idea if he ever met any Jewish people, as they’d been banned from England in the late 1200s. But in Shylock, he gave us a complicated, three dimensional man. And when I read Merchant, I do not see him as a villain. Because he does not have to be. He is a man wronged, and despite the acidity of his demeanor, you can’t help but think that Antonio, Bassanio, and even Portia sort-of-kind-of deserve it.

I was so upset by this depiction of Shylock that I went online to find out what other controversial opinions were held by Berkoff. And, lo and behold, I found out that he thinks Othello should be an option for white actors, and that we shouldn’t cast black men in the role for the sake of ‘political correctness.’

So I think it’s safe to say that his opinion on The Merchant of Venice is now null and void. The Folger, meanwhile, needs to be more careful about who they let onto their podcast.

Shakespeare Uncovered
So, after being deeply disappointed by Shakespeare Unlimited, you find yourself wondering where you might go to find more nuanced, sensible discussions of Shakespeare. Lucky for you, Shakespeare Uncovered exists.

Shakespeare Uncovered is a documentary series that airs on PBS here in the USA. I have absolutely loved every episode I’ve watched. Discussions of the plays are incredibly detailed, and the hosts are so obviously passionate. Since we’re on the topic of The Merchant of Venice, F. Murray Abraham’s episode on the play was top notch. I watched it early one morning while getting ready for work, and the closing lines wrecked me.

ABRAHAM: The Merchant of Venice is hardly what we see as a comedy today. It’s a play with dark shadows, and the character that casts the longest one is Shylock. Shylock will not go away because we haven’t answered his questions. We can’t explain why we persecute difference, why we reject the outsider, why we still refuse to see each other’s humanity.

What a thought-provoking and intelligent interpretation of The Merchant of Venice. The episode on Measure for Measure (which, by the way, still haunts me on the daily) was also carefully written and hosted. The subject matter is delicate, the time we are in even more so, but host Romola Garai and the guests she spoke to made it clear that Measure for Measure is a difficult play with no right answers.

Because, as we know, there is no clear hero or heroine. All we have to deal with is Isabella and Angelo, the Duke and Mariana. The episode was gorgeous and interesting, much like the rest of Shakespeare Uncovered. I highly, highly recommend it! I’ve used it in the past to prep my family for plays, and it’s always been a huge help. And for someone who is well-versed in Shakespeare, it is a relaxing, thoughtful dive into our favorite plays.

The King (2019)

What is a post from me if it does not contain even one mention of Henry V? The King is an upcoming Netflix movie based on Henry IV Parts One and Two and Henry V. Oh, the endless possibilities! And oh, the potential for absolute disaster.

From the get-go, I was very skeptical of the casting. I think you need incredible range to play Hal, especially if you’re going to carry him through the Henriad. The shift from rebellious scoundrel to pressured king cannot be jarring. The transition needs to be smooth and natural, which is quite difficult. I thought Tom Hiddleston did a good job of it in The Hollow Crown. I saw Jamie Parker as Hal in Henry V at the Globe in 2012, and I could see glimmers of the prince I love and know so well even in what was being put on as a stand-alone play. What I’m saying is a ruffled bowl cut does not a Prince Hal of England make.

The AV Club’s synopsis more or less confirms that I am going to be hate watching this more than anything else. It goes, “Hal is a reluctant heir to the English throne who’s been living as a commoner these many years. He’s forced to take the crown, however, after his tyrannical father bites it. Now the young king must navigate the palace politics, chaos and war his father left behind, and the emotional strings of his past life – including his relationship with his closest friend and mentor, the aging alcoholic knight, John Falstaff.”

Reluctant heir is right. But living as a commoner? I’m not sure I’d call messing around at the Boar’s Head ‘living as a commoner.’

I take the most issue with him being forced to take the crown after his tyrannical father ‘bites it.’ 4.3 in Henry IV, Part Two is an incredibly important scene, and this part of the synopsis tells me that Henry IV isn’t the only thing that’ll be biting it. Hal and Henry IV’s tension reaches its limit in 4.3, and their reconciliation is incredibly important for Hal’s character development. While Hal does have to navigate palace politics as he tries to reconcile who he is with who England expects him to be, I would not say that he is dealing with chaos and war left behind by Henry IV. 4.3 very clearly shows Henry IV telling Hal to distract the court with French wars so that they don’t have the time or energy for another uprising a la Hotspur and Northumberland.

Speaking of Hotspur, where is he?

As for Falstaff, I guess he isn’t dying anymore! If we cut out 4.3, and if we reduce Henry IV down to a tyrant, then we are getting rid of what pulls Hal toward Falstaff – the deep-rooted desire for a father figure who does not mind his rakish ways. Mentor, no. A source of validation and support, yes.

It also looks like Katherine might have more of a role in this movie, which I can’t really complain about. I did laugh out loud at her asking Hal, “Do you feel a sense of achievement?” A little on the nose there, don’t you think? Also, definitely not a line from 5.2 of Henry V!

I think the Henriad is wonderfully accessible, but we need to listen to what the source material is trying to tell us. Shakespeare has it all laid out in black and white: Hal, the struggling prince, later the struggling king. How do you make peace with your past? How do you bridge two parts of yourself while ensuring the loyalty and love of your people? How do you cope knowing that all of England has put their souls on your shoulders? Who do you grow up to be when you’ve been desperate for your father’s approval all your life?

And Falstaff: the clown, but also the crude, makeshift father figure for the unruly prince. A source of oddly put wisdom, a warm, funny place to go when the palace is too cold and the walls begin to close in.

It’s all there, and I don’t think The King went into this knowing that. But we shall see! November 1st is fast approaching, and I doubt this movie will leave my radar any time soon.

And, before I leave, all hail the King? Really? That’s the tagline they came up with for the Henriad? Talk about dark times.

HENRY IV · HENRY V · RICHARD II · SHAKESPEARE

THE HENRIAD

What is the Henriad? Where did the word “Henriad” come from?
Henry V (Sam Ashdown). Photo by Karl Hugh, 2016. Utah Shakespeare Festival.

As promised, I forced myself to put Henry V back on the shelf. I’ve already started Macbeth – I’m only two acts away from its gruesome close.

But, as expected, I cannot move on from Henry V. This is no surprise, as I’ve always clung to Shakespeare’s histories…like a new-married wife about her husband’s neck. See? I’m even quoting, for heaven’s sake.

I spent most of last night looking for a very specific book that I’m afraid does not exist. I wish I were in a position to spearhead the publication of such a book! Since I am not, and likely never will be, I thought I’d just write the idea out so that it can stop plaguing me.

What I was looking for, specifically, was a nice, large volume containing the entirety of the Henriad. For you Shakespeare hatchlings, the Henriad is the name given to the tetralogy of Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two, and Henry V. Those four plays in particular, I think, are a real experience if read one after the other. I do not feel this way about the other histories – in fact, I see no reason to have to plod through all the parts of Henry VI just to get to Richard III. But to read Henry V without touching upon the rest of the Henriad is just criminal and can really ruin a reader’s enjoyment of the play.

I was so sure that a collected volume would exist, but it doesn’t. For shame! Of course, in the midst of my disappointment, my imagination began to get carried away with itself. Not only am I dreaming of a volume collecting all four plays, I’m dreaming of a leather-bound volume. The thought of illustrations crossed my mind…before it was swiftly replaced with fantasies of the entire thing being fashioned as an illuminated manuscript. Can you imagine? And, oh, think of all the thoughtful and inspiring essays that could be sprinkled in between the plays. Think of all the history that can be contained in such a publication of the Henriad – does such an amazing tetralogy deserve any less?

The leather of the cover would be embossed with intricate patterns influenced by the art of the time period in question, of course. And the style of the illustrations that accompany the plays do not have to be accurate – who’s to say that there isn’t an artist out there capable of capturing the magical, golden haze of an illuminated manuscript and the beauty of anatomically correct, aesthetically pleasing art?

Any large illustrations would be followed by that lovely, translucent, almost wax-like paper that you sometimes discovered while flipping through especially precious books as a child. Do you know the type? Even if the illustrations didn’t need it, I’d want them in this collection anyway because they always give the distinct feeling that you’re handling something special and fragile.

I guess it’s worth wondering who would be interested in such a volume of the Henriad. Obviously, any Shakespeare lovers or historians out there would fall in love with the idea immediately. But I also think there would be something attractive about it for new readers – I mean, owning a beautiful book won’t make you love Shakespeare any faster, but it does help, doesn’t it?

HENRY V · SHAKESPEARE

A LITTLE TOUCH OF HARRY IN THE NIGHT

A gold noble coin of Henry V, c. 1413

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 · SHAKESPEARE

O KATE, NICE CUSTOMS CURTSY TO GREAT KINGS

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Henry V of England wooing Katherine of Valois, c. 1419.

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.

HENRY V · SHAKESPEARE

I WILL SPEAK MY CONSCIENCE OF THE KING: I THINK HE WOULD NOT WISH HIMSELF ANYWHERE BUT WHERE HE IS

The ratification of the Treaty of Troyes between Henry V and Charles VI of France.

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.

Why?

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,
Imploring pardon.

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.

But, oh, you just love him for it.

HENRY V · SHAKESPEARE

O GOD OF BATTLES, STEEL MY SOLDIERS’ HEARTS

henry-v
Facsimile of a letter from Henry V, 1418.

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.