Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: James D. Mardock
Peer Reviewed

Henry V: General Introduction


41"Still a Giddy Neighbor": Englishness and the foreign

The Old Vic theater in south London opened its doors in 1951, after a long postwar closure, with Glen Byam Shaw's production of Henry V. In his mostly negative review, Evening Standard critic Milton Shulman's most interesting remark concerned the audience's sensitivity to modern topicality (2 Feb. 1951). Shulman noted that the line "these English are shrewdly out of beef" (TLN 1781-82), which had drawn bitter spirit-of-the-blitz laughter throughout the years of meat rationing, continued to please, but he was disappointed that only he found the opportunity for a knowing smile in the French lords' characterization of the English as "Foolish curs, that run winking into the mouth of a Russian bear" (TLN 1771-72). By 1951, the enemy had changed, but the Shakespearean inside jokes were expected to remain current.

42That a newspaper critic should be surprised and aggrieved at his fellow theatergoers' inability to find a cold war context for a sixteenth-century bear-baiting joke illustrates the curious place that Henry V occupies in the English historical imagination. Shakespeare's play has somehow made a brief, mercenary, politically-motivated campaign in 1415 France into a primary model for the fashioning of English identity. As suggested by the lines Shulman's review emphasizes, though, despite its stirring rhetorical linkage of Harry, England, and Saint George, the play produces its idea of Englishness less through the figure of the titular king than through representations of England in discursive tension with the foreign. In Henry V, any attempt, however subtle, to define or celebrate the English character is undercut by the English doing the celebrating or by the foreigners doing the defining; the enemy, so to speak, has always already digged himself countermines. The play does not so much portray English identity as delimit it by means of rhetorics of difference placed in the mouths of English and foreign characters alike. Directors who see the play as an assertion of national identity ignore Shakespeare's conditional, oppositional, conflicted view of Englishness at their peril.

43Because of its position as the central fulcrum of the eight contiguous English history plays, Henry V cannot really extricate its central character -- arguably the one successful monarch in the lot -- from the dominant arc of rebellion and civil wars that tie the tetralogies together. Bookended by the clerics' reminder of the "scambling and unquiet time" (TLN 42) of Henry IV's reign and the epilogue's promise that England will bleed again all too soon, the triumph of Henry V is only a brief respite from the primal curse afflicting the heirs of Edward III.

44Although Henry V contains the words "England" and "English" more than any other Shakespearean drama, any elegiac celebrations of the British island and its glories, in the vein of John of Gaunt's famous speech in Richard II (TLN 681-709) are conspicuously absent from this play; such moments are instead reserved for "fair France," the "world's best garden" (TLN 3345, TLN 3374), with "her almost kingly dukedoms" (TLN 374). The play's picture of the English, even in the comparative unity of Henry V's reign, is characterized not by concord, but by fracture. We open with a reminder from Canterbury that the government is factious: commons ranged against clergy and lords, with the crown's leanings unsure. The stylized grouping of the four captains -- English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish -- sometimes read as a celebration of unity under Henry's benevolent imperial rule, is a study in the barely controlled internecine animosity that permeates Shakespeare's picture of the Agincourt campaign. "Be friends, you English fools," cries Bates, "we have French quarrels enough" (TLN 2071-72), but his plea goes unheard by anyone, even the king.

45At those spots in the play where Englishness is most explicitly defined by English voices, it is so defined in the negative, or in the subjunctive mood. Henry's most famous speech builds to a jingoistic battle cry, but it repeatedly betrays the king's suspicion that his men are not quite English enough (whatever that may mean). The English may be noble (or at least, as in the Folio's spelling, "Noblish"), and their ancestry may be "war-proof" (TLN 1100-1), but Henry calls that ancestry in question as soon as he asserts its quality: "Dishonor not your Mothers; now attest / That those whom you called fathers did beget you" (TLN 1105-6). His praise of the "good yeomen, / Whose limbs were made in England" (TLN 1108-9) is likewise immediately undercut by his insistence that they prove such nativity to be an advantage: "show us here / The mettle of your pasture. Let us swear / That you are worth your breeding" (TLN 1109-11). Henry may claim to "doubt [it] not," but the call to prove the quality of his men's English upbringing suggests that doubt persists.

46Even the Chorus, whose ostensible role is to beat the play's most patriotic drum taps, employs the conditional in his praise of England:

O England, model to thy inward greatness,
Like little body with a mighty heart,
What mightst thou do, that honor would thee do,
Were all thy children kind and natural!
(TLN 478-81)

This is, of course, our introduction to the traitors, and so such a tone of lament is understandable, but it furthers the ambivalent picture of England in the play, fatally subverting the speech's opening claim that "all the youth of England are on fire" (TLN 473) even more than does the juxtaposition of that claim with Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym, the least young, ardent, and hearty (and therefore least English?) of the troops.

47The traitor scene inserts the three unkind, unnatural children -- Cambridge, Scrope, and Grey -- troublingly into the preparation for war. For all the claims of providential resolution to the treason crisis that end the scene, it proposes no alternative to the traitors' "unkindness" (i.e. their alien, foreign behavior), no sense of true Englishness, no sense of what a kind and natural child would look like. The king's accusation exposes them as inhuman: "See you, my princes and my noble peers, / These English monsters" (TLN 713-14), but the phrase is intriguingly ambivalent. Are the traitors monsters in their failure to behave like Englishmen? Or is their Englishness part of their monstrousness? The etymology of monster -- from the Latin monstrare, to show -- suggests ambiguous wordplay, as if treason is a demonstration of Englishness. And the upshot of treason is not to clarify by contrast the nature of true Englishmen, but rather to call virtue itself into question: "And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot / To make the full-fraught man, and best, indued / With some suspicion" (TLN 767-69). Treason taints every Englishman, just as the first "fall of man" taints every human. What, then, is "natural" Englishness, and who, if anyone, has a claim to it? The scene has no answer to that question.

48The chief means of portraying national identity in Henry V, however, is not this negative and conditional definition of English nature, but the silhouette of Englishness that emerges from comparative discourse with the foreign. A positive picture of England can only be limned, apparently, with reference to the non-English. Henry repeatedly repays the French in the coin of battlefield taunting; the English may be unclear on the mettle of their pasture, but at least they know they are not the French. Their comparative paucity of heraldic feathers is proof of their courage: "Good argument . . . [they] will not fly" (TLN 2360). Henry figures the English constitution quantitatively, using his soldiers' French counterparts as a unit of measure: "when they were in health, I tell thee, herald, / I thought upon one pair of English legs / Did march three Frenchmen" (TLN 1598-1600), and even as he admits the blame for his English boastfulness, he attributes it to a Gallic infection; in France, even the climate is arrogant: "this your air of France / Hath blown that vice in me" (TLN 1601-2). In his wooing of Catherine, one of the rare moments when Henry nearly states outright a positive English characteristic, he again requires a foreign figure -- the outspoken and decidedly resistant figure of Catherine herself -- to do so. The princess declares her distrust of the tongues of men, full as they are of deceits, and Henry replies with an unexpected bit of praise: "The princess is the better Englishwoman" (TLN 3111). In an act of rhetorical colonization, Henry appropriates her suspicious French response and redefines it as English virtue.

49The French, in their court and in their tents before Agincourt, give voice to Shakespeare's idea of foreign stereotypes of the English: they are barbarians, "bastard Normans" (TLN 1389); they endure their impossible weather by drinking "barley broth," "A drench for sur-reined jades" (TLN 1398); they sympathize in nature with the mastiffs they breed (TLN 1776-77), subsist on "great meals of beef" (TLN 1779), and lack "intellectual armor" (TLN 1765-66). These scenes are rich in dramatic irony, of course, but it is remarkable that the fullest, most evocative images of Englishmen in the play come from their enemies. Apparently the English even have a reputation in hell for being easily tempted, thanks to the traitor Scrope:

If that same demon that hath gulled thee thus
Should with his lion gait walk the whole world,
He might return to vasty Tartar back
And tell the legions, "I can never win
A soul so easy as that Englishman's."
(TLN 750-54)

50It is not only the French who contribute to the play's silhouette portrait of Englishness. The character of "good Captain James" (TLN 1202-3) may have been intended as a positive (if anachronistic) portrait of a Scotsman appropriate to England's late sixteenth-century alliance with the captain's royal namesake King James VI, but the play's general view of the Scot -- "Who hath been still a giddy neighbor to us" (TLN 292) -- derives from the historical animosity between the nations, bred by the "auld alliance" between Scotland and France and found in Shakespeare's chronicle sources (see TLN 293-301 n.). When Henry and his counselors wish to hear England's glory "exampled by herself" (TLN 303), the Scots become the villainous vermin in a historiographical animal fable: if England invades France, the expectation is that Scotland will attack, "Playing the mouse in absence of the cat, / To 'tame and havoc more than she can eat" (TLN 318-19). These Scottish "coursing snatchers," in effect, produce the image of "the eagle England" (TLN 315) by inhabiting the historical role of "the weasel Scot" (TLN 316).

51The Welsh presence in the play cannot reflect the same xenophobia, of course, since its central figure and hero is "Welsh, you know" (TLN 2635). For the same reason, Captain Fluellen's role never quite becomes the comedic butt that his obsession with the Roman disciplines, his excessively precise humor, and his occasional malapropisms promise. The conclusion of his role does, however, illustrate the play's pattern of employing the foreign to define English national identity, and it does so in the ambiguously celebratory fashion characteristic of that pattern. The most English thing about Fluellen, as Gower's admonition to the well-beaten Pistol attests, seems to be his affinity for violence:

You thought because he could not speak English in the native garb he could not therefore handle an English cudgel. You find it otherwise, and henceforth let a Welsh correction teach you a good English condition. Fare ye well. (TLN 2971-74)

This is not a lesson in ethnic tolerance; it is a xenophobic statement of national identity. Only by beating Pistol -- who has himself failed Gower's test of true Englishness -- does Fluellen finally achieve "a good English condition" himself.

52In Henry V, the role of the foreign in the making of Englishness calls all such identity formation into question, and productions that take assertions of national identity as their starting point must either acknowledge this aspect of the play or produce anemic and shallow exercises in flag-waving. By contrast, Edward Hall's Royal Shakespeare Company production in 2000 perfectly captured the play's insistence that Englishness may only be examined through the lens of England's discourse with the foreign. As the program's lengthy opening essay made clear, the driving force of the production was a consideration of English national identity. Another section of the program collected quotations of national stereotypes -- both foreign and domestic -- under the heading "So who are the English?" a question answered most fully (with respect to the play) by Andrew Marr's contribution to the program notes:

This is a robust, crowded country of tempestuous and often violent people, generally skeptical of authority . . . but who can be rallied and directed by inspired leadership…. What is stunning about the England of Henry V is…just how relevant this old, old story of medieval conquest still seems to the nation of football hooligans, spin doctors, self-glorifying leaders and migrants on the make.

53The production was unpopular with critics, largely for the very characteristics that made it successful in its stated goal of reflecting on the meaning of Englishness, and particularly relevant to the aspect of the play I have been tracing here. The staging was broadly, at times cartoonishly, stylized, with cascades of tennis balls raining from the flies and national flags large enough to drape over the entire stage. Hall's dramatization of Englishness, as the constant presence of cast members onstage as a liminal audience made clear, was always a mediated one, always in quotation marks. When we saw Nym as a soccer-jersey-wearing thug threatening Pistol with a switchblade, we were watching a foreigner's stereotype of English hooliganism, a stereotype then brought into question by Joe Renton's generally sympathetic portrayal of Nym. The running gag of the English inability to pronounce foreign words -- "Calliss," "Dawfin," "Harflurr" -- came across as seen through the filter of continental Europe's stereotype of the ugly Brit abroad, but the mockery was gentle enough to expose the stereotype as such.

54The production was equally effective when it caricatured English attitudes toward France. Scene shifts from England to France were comically marked, for example, with accordion versions of "La Vie en Rose." The implications of national caricature were most striking in the "English lesson" scene, in which Catherine Walker's princess, a lingerie-clad teenager, was surrounded by onlooking cast members in English military uniforms, singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" in laughably thick Maurice Chevalier accents. Hall's production was certainly not subtle, but its playful ironies captured the complications built into Henry V's presentation of national identity. What Hall understood is the intrinsic function of the foreign to the play's shaping of an English national identity that Shakespeare's play could never, in the contexts of his history cycle, render as simple or monolithic. Englishness, for Shakespeare, is always a conversation.