Currently, I am only about half way into Henry V. Those not familiar with it, King Henry V of England decides to go to war with France to assert his right to the French Crown. At the beginning of the story, however, on the eve of launching his invasion, Henry deals with a trio of his lords who have been bribed by the French to assassinate him should he invade. He sets a trap for them where he asks their opinion of a case and the lords suggest that he exercise the maximum punishment and withhold mercy. He then reveals to them their planned treachery and they suddenly urge the King to do mercy. Outraged at their betrayal, he refers to the other case where they advocated the fullest measure of the law for the transgressor, and informs them that they have swayed him in that way. Obviously there is a moral here, urging us to be careful in how we would deal with wrong-doers. Who knows when we will be called to give account and placed in the same position as those we have condemned?
Another thing that stood out in my mind from the event is how seriously Henry took their betrayal. These were not men he hardly knew: they were friends and companions and advisers. In the Medieval world, betrayal was a heinous sin. In Dante's Inferno, the ninth circle of Hell is reserved for traitors. Indeed, Judas Iscariot, Brutus and Cassius, who are eternally being devoured by Satan himself in the very bottom of Hell. These men were not just traitors, but they were close friends of those whom they turned against. I find it fascinating that here in Shakespeare, we can see the reflection of such a strong cultural view against traitors. In a society where stability was dependent, in part, on those in power to keep their oaths to those over them, it is understandable why such condemnation would be reserved for those who break trust.
I wonder if this scene from Henry V sticks out in my mind because of how greatly I value loyalty and steadfastness. I am always bothered when people speak ill of my friends around me (not only for obvious reasons, but also because I wonder what they say of me). While there are some circumstances in which there is need to address certain character flaws, more often than not, it is simply the human ability to put down others for the sake of feeling better about one's own (equally questionable) character. I cannot say that I have not been guilty of this, much as I would like to say otherwise, but in recent years, I have been convicted that such speech and conduct is not proper in most circumstances and have made a point of avoiding it, and when possible, coming to the defense of those I count as friends. Lord willing, I will escape the Ninth Circle!