Monday, March 10, 2008

Reflections on Shakespeare's Henry V

I am currently reading Shakespeare's play, Henry V. Up until now, I had only read one of Shakespeare's play, Othello, although I have seen several performed, such as The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. I was rather embarrassed by this, so I have now resolved myself to read more of the Bard. I found a used book store not long ago and purchased King Lear and Macbeth, and so I hope to read those fairly soon as well.

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!


Laura said...

Isn't that the one with "And gentlemen of England, now abed, shall think themselves accursed, they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap something something... upon Saint Crispin's day"?

Just looked it up; it's in Act IV, Scene III. And what a fantastic, rousing speech! Good ol' Shakespeare, coining all those phrases we couldn't do without today -- "household words," "band of brothers."

Jacob said...

Yes, the knowledge that such a fine speech was part of this story played a role in my choosing to read it. I think I remember from the dvd commentaries that it was an inspiration for Aragorn's speech to the Men of the West outside the Black Gates in The Return of the King.

Laura said...

Get out of town. When I see that scene I think of the one in Elizabeth where Cate Blanchett is in armo(u)r encouraging her troops to fight for

The captcha below almost says ekklesia, as if it were spelled by someone from Finland -- eskklja. Weird.

Jacob said...

Ah yes...the speech to the troops at Tilsbury(?). A review of that movie said it looked like a rip-off. Was it a good movie? I thought about seeing it, but never got around to it.

Laura said...

The first one, from the nineties, was excellent. Cate Blanchett has the bizarre ability to be both terrifying and gorgeous at the same time, and she used that ability to great effect. The sequel, which came out last year, is awful -- a pandering, dull soap opera. You can almost see Cate calling her agent between takes and saying, "Why, again, did I do this? Helen Mirren made this same movie last year!"

Jacob said...

It seems that we got something of Cate Blanchett's terrible beauty in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Who is Helen Mirren? (I don't see many new movies)

Laura said...

Helen Mirren -- one of the greatest actresses alive -- played Queen Elizabeth I and II in the same year, one for the movie The Queen and one for the HBO miniseries called Elizabeth I. She's 65 if she's a day, gorgeous, and has an important role in my favorite movie, Gosford Park (an ensemble piece, which, as I heard a reviewer say, confirms the American viewer's suspicion that great actors are lying in heaps by the road in Britain).