Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: James D. Mardock
Peer Reviewed

Henry V: General Introduction


33Remembering with advantages: history and historical drama

The theme of haunting in Henry V may be seen as an example of a larger issue in the play, that of memory and its relationship to the telling of history. Haunting is, after all, merely an aggressive, metaphysical intrusion of memory into the mental worlds of the living. The ghosts of the dead cry "remember me," and their descendants, among them historians and playwrights, comply. And Henry V seems particularly concerned with the workings of memory. As Gary Taylor has noted, Shakespeare uses the word memorable only four times in his surviving work, all of them in this play (Taylor 1982 149), which contains eighteen other explicit verbal references to memory, more than any other play except Hamlet. The climactic passage with this regard is Henry's "Saint Crispin's Day" rallying speech before Agincourt, where he imagines a future England -- the present of the play's performance -- in which the battle will have become history, the story that "the good man [shall] teach his son" not only in 1599, but in a hyperbolic assertion of permanence, "to the ending of the world" (TLN 2299, TLN 2301). In Henry's fantasy, he and his men will have become secular saints, displacing Crispin and Crispian as objects of a communal celebration for which their bodies will become relics, as the veteran "strip[s] his sleeve and show[s] his scars" (TLN 2291). The performance of the play itself becomes the fulfillment of Henry's prophecy.

34This trope is not merely an assertion of patriotic military solidarity, however. Holding historical collective memory up to scrutiny is the chief method by which Shakespeare produces the play's characteristic ambiguities, and Henry's imagined veteran, "[h]e that shall see this day and live old age" (TLN 2288) is a metonym for the disjunction between the past and the memory of it. The assertion not only of the permanence of the memory of Agincourt but of its augmentation -- "all shall be forgot, / But he'll remember, with advantages, / The feats he did that day" (TLN 2292-94) -- is often played for gentle humor, an acknowledgement of the very human tendency to embellish the memory of our deeds. But the play also shows that such embellishment can be transgressive as well as harmlessly celebratory: Gower bemoans the existence of cowards like Pistol, who memorize the facts of a battle only to lend authenticity to their pretended valor, as one of the "slanders of the age" (TLN 1527), and Pistol himself evokes Henry's imagined veteran when he promises to show off the "cudgeled scars" he received from Fluellen, "[a]nd swear [he] got them in the Gallia wars" (TLN 2982-83). This theme of reshaping the memory of war persists beyond the exaggerations of veterans real and imagined; the play argues that remembering with advantages, for good or ill, is the very definition of history. Shakespeare repeatedly highlights the workings of historiography, and demonstrates that history does not consist in the facts as they happened, but in the enacting of a directed, biased, collective memory. History, that is, is the history play.

35Shakespeare himself remembers with advantages, of course, departing from his own understanding of historical fact when it suits him to do so. But he does not seek to hide the fact that history is a construct, and one function of the Chorus's repeated emphasis on the inadequacy of dramatic representation is to highlight the artifice involved in historical memory: the epilogue's wry self-portrait of Shakespeare as the play's "bending author" (TLN 3369) recalls Henry's disingenuous injunction to Canterbury, forbidding him to "fashion, wrest, or bow" his reading of German history and the Salic Law (TLN 161), and it suggests an intention that gives the lie to the equally disingenuous apology that Shakespeare has been forced by the strictures of theater to reduce the story to episodes, "mangling by starts the full course of their glory" (TLN 3371). Shakespeare, like the French, like Canterbury, like Henry himself, is unafraid to gloss history unjustly for his purposes.

36Certain conservative critics, particularly in the early twentieth century, sought to defend Shakespeare's bending and mangling from accusations of dishonesty. Thus John Marriott in 1918 argued that "though Shakspeare does subordinate history to drama; though he compresses and fore-shortens; though he is careless as to details, he never falsifies the essential verities; he never misleads" (Marriott 163). And Charles Montague distinguished between truths and truths, between facts and facts, arguing that what Shakespeare presents is the "moral fact of an Agincourt," which is perceptible only if we put aside historical fact: Shakespeare depicts the "truth" of Agincourt by subordinating the historical events themselves to the "essential nature" of the event (Montague 171): "So, through particular untruth, a universal truth is achieved" (174). E. M. W. Tillyard, one of the mid-century's most influential critics of Shakespeare's history plays, saw Shakespeare as participating in the propagation of the so-called Tudor myth, a "universally held and still comprehensible scheme of history: a scheme fundamentally religious, by which events evolve under a law of justice and under the ruling of God's Providence, and of which Elizabeth's England was the acknowledged outcome" (Tillyard 320-21). This teleological and historically reductive reading of Shakespeare's use of history was dismissed by later critics, particularly the new historicists and cultural materialists of the 1980s, but even Tillyard's detractors agree that Henry V does seem to be involved in the ideologically-inflected production of history. What early critics tended to miss is the extent to which Shakespeare is aware of the artifice of historiography.

37Henry V repeatedly dramatizes the process of making history. The Chorus speeches that begin every act are notable for their disjunction from what a modern newscaster would call "facts on the ground." Each of the Chorus's speeches is a celebratory act of communal memory in which he insistently, imperatively implicates the play's audience as co-creators: "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them" (TLN 27); "'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings" (TLN 29); "there [in Southampton] must you sit" (TLN 498); "Work, work your thoughts" (TLN 1069); "Now entertain conjecture of a time" (TLN 1790); "now behold / In the quick forge and working-house of thought" (TLN 2872-73). But the Chorus's portrait of Henry's war is radically undercut by the scenes that follow these communal celebrations. In act one, the promise of the "warlike Harry" assuming the "port of Mars" gives way to an inglorious scene of scheming bishops. The second Chorus promises that "all the youth of England are on fire" (TLN 463), but precedes an act filled with bickering old men going to war only reluctantly and for ignoble motives (not to mention three traitors and a dying Falstaff). Act three's Chorus promises early triumph for the English -- "down goes all before them" (TLN 1079), but Shakespeare's siege of Harfleur is a battle of desperate rhetoric, internecine squabbles, cowardly foot-soldiers, and sadistic threatening on the part of the king. In act four, the Chorus's beautiful portrait of the eve of Agincourt promises "a little touch of Harry in the night," but the king's surreptitious visits to his soldiers, which look like nothing so much as panoptic surveillance, result in quarrels with Pistol and Williams, a far cry from the beneficent inspiration that the Chorus describes (TLN 1817-36). The fifth act Chorus, describing Henry's triumphal entry into London and his return to France to make peace is so uncomfortably at odds with the scene that follows it -- the Welsh-English squabbling that results in beating and forced leek-consumption for Pistol -- that many eighteenth-century editors simply relocated the leek scene before the Chorus. In every case, the audience is encouraged, even ordered to participate in the Chorus's vision, only to be confronted with the fact that that vision, and by implication the history play itself, is an overt act of remembering with advantages.

38The most radical example of Shakespeare's scrutiny of the artifice of history comes in act four, where he confronts us with the rewriting of events even as they unfold. Henry's infamous order to kill the French prisoners occurs in 4.6, in the heat of battle, and his reasons are clear: "The French have reinforced their scattered men" (TLN 2521) in order to make another attack, and in such a critical moment, guarding prisoners becomes a wasteful use of manpower. In the scene immediately following, Gower declares that the killing of the prisoners was in retaliation for the cowardly French attack on the boys guarding the luggage train, for which Henry is to be praised: "wherefore the king most worthily hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. Oh, 'tis a gallant king" (TLN 2533-35). At a remove of only eleven lines in the Folio text, Gower's reinterpretation must appear to the audience to be flatly incorrect, but the play never contradicts his error, and we are confronted with a false historiography that the characters of the play tacitly endorse. The morality of Henry's order has been much discussed, but what is clear is that Shakespeare alters his chronicle source in Holinshed (see TLN 2520-22 n.) in order to show that the process of rewriting history has already begun. As the scene continues, so does its exposure of flawed historiography, as Fluellen's mock-Plutarchan comparison of Henry to Alexander the Great -- based on each of them being born near a river containing "salmons" -- threatens to undermine the play's earlier use of Alexander as a serious typological precursor to Henry (TLN 87, TLN 1102; see Spencer 16). Finally, lest we miss the point, Shakespeare links this battlefield historiography, the immediate act of remembering with advantages, to his own dramatic fiction. The discussion of Henry's gallantry and his comparison to Alexander leads Fluellen to the fat knight who may or may not have been killed by Henry's dismissal; and in a reminder that strategic remembrance also requires strategic forgetting, Fluellen admits, "I have forgot his name" (TLN 2573).

39Henry himself remembers with advantages, and Shakespeare is concerned to highlight his doing so. An examination of Shakespeare's strategic alterations of his chronicle source in the play's first two scenes will demonstrate this. Canterbury's speech in 1.2 is nearly a direct, though versified, quotation of Holinshed's Chronicles, retaining even Holinshed's factual errors (see TLN 224 n.). This might lead readers to the misapprehension that Shakespeare narrowly followed his source for this scene and adopted its arguments and biases. In fact, the playwright subtly alters the course of events presented in Holinshed in order to present a more savvy, manipulative picture of Henry as the agent behind the war. In Holinshed, Canterbury is the clear instigator, and Henry's voice in the build-up to war is almost entirely absent. The process starts, as it seems to do in Shakespeare's play, with the commons' proposal to reapportion church property, and in Holinshed the bishops' ploy to urge war as a distraction is much more explicitly stated than in Shakespeare:

to find remedie against it, they determined to assaie all ways to put by and overthrow this bill: wherein they thought best to trie if they might mooue the kings mood with some sharpe inuention, that he should not regard the importunate petitions of the commons. (545)

The archbishop then delivers his speech regarding the Salic Law to the privy council, and the lords whip the assembly into a frenzied mood, all without the participation of the king, whom Holinshed presents more as object than agent:

the duke of Excester used such earnest and pithie persuasions, to induce the king and the whole assemblie of the parlement to credit his words, that immediatelie after he had made an end, all the companie began to crie; Warre, warre; France, France. (546)

And in a passage whose import Shakespeare omits, Holinshed reminds his readers of the clerical motive and the priests' successful gambit: "Hereby the bill for dissoluing of religious houses was cleerlie set aside, and nothing thought on but onelie the recovering of France, according as the archbishop had mooued" (546). Only after this point of no return does Holinshed's Henry send ambassadors to demand the surrender of the French crown and "certain dukedoms" (TLN 396).

40Shakespeare's reordering of events makes clear that Henry is the agent behind the war, and that the "bill urged by the commons" (TLN 113), despite its appearance in the first scene, is merely a tool for the king's use. In the play's second scene, the archbishop delivers his Salic Law speech, but he does so at Henry's instigation and, as Canterbury anticipates, "[w]ith good acceptance of his majesty" (TLN 126; see TLN 408 n.); and unlike in the chronicle, it is Henry himself who makes the decisive move to war ("Now are we well resolved" [TLN 369]). The French ambassador makes clear that Henry's demands to France have already taken place -- that is, before the archbishop's justification of them -- and that the purpose of the embassy is to present the dauphin's response (TLN 395-406). In Henry's hands, this response, the mocking gift of tennis balls, becomes the immediate public impetus for war, and the previous events -- the prior English diplomatic aggression and even the speech on Salic Law that we have just heard -- are swept under the carpet; the king himself, not the bishops, uses rhetoric as a distraction from less attractive realities. The overall effect of Shakespeare's alterations of his chronicle source is to change Holinshed's picture of a pious king acceding to the influence of his counselors into a portrait of a shrewd, unilateral manipulator of piety and polity alike, capable of rewriting his own history even as it unfolds. In Henry V, the last play of Shakespeare's eight-play cycle seems to hold historiography itself up to scrutiny -- particularly the type of communal historiography performed on battlefields, at public memorials, in political discourse, and on stages -- even as he himself participates in it.