When Blood is Their Argument: Class, Character, and Historymaking in Shakespeare's and Branagh's Henry V

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"When Blood is Their Argument": Class, Character, and Historymaking in Shakespeare's and Branagh's Henry V

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Robert Lane, North Carolina State University

That [these events] had a real truth in history, sharpens the sense of pain, while it hangs a leaden weight on the heart and the imagination … [W]e think that the actual truth of the particular events, in proportion as we are conscious of it, is a drawback on the pleasures as well as the dignity of tragedy.

—William Hazlitt1

Premised on the antagonism between history's "real ground" and the imaginative pleasures of tragedy, Hazlitt's meditation reveals a tension that underlies much discussion of Shakespeare's history plays. Hazlitt's polarizing of history and pleasure is echoed in Shakespeare's Henry V when the Archbishop extols Henry's rhetorical gifts:

List his discourse of war, and you shall hear
A fearful battle rend'red you in music.

The pleasures Canterbury indicates rhetoric can induce by transforming gruesome historical events becomes in Hazlitt the balm for "the sense of pain" endured in grappling with the "actual truth" of history: "All the beauties of language and all the richness of the imagination … relieve the painfulness of the subject." However seductive, the invitation to modulate this play's history into delight may not be so easily accomplished, history comprising as it does, in Annabel Patterson's words, "both [the play's] content and its context."3 The impulse, however, testifies to that history's fragility, the recurring need to recapture the matrix of sociopolitical dynamics, especially those of class, that are integral to the drama's significance. The commoners in the play are pivotal in this regard. As the king's interlocutors (4.1) they articulate a probing skepticism that exposes the evasions required to dampen the class resentment war incites. In doing so, they crystallize important political problems from the play's present (the late 1590s) that were constituents of the government's military policy. They also provide disturbing reminders of Henry's own seemingly irrepressible past. Finally, these figures prompt us to take seriously the Archbishop's injunction—"List his discourse of war"—to examine the rhetoric surrounding Henry's military enterprise, disrupting it as they do by the clash of styles and perspectives they inject. The sense of dissonance and unease evoked in all these ways contravenes the pleasure offered by Henry's "sweet and honeyed sentences" (1.1.50), inhibiting the audience from taking that language at face value.4 Instead, the play sets in motion what Bakhtin called "unresolvable dialogues" over the meaning to be given to Henry's martial enterprise.5 In an audience constantly exhorted by the Chorus to exercise its intelligence on the performance, those dialogues prompt critical reflection on war as well as on the character of political leadership incident to it—"confining mighty men," as it were, "in little room" (Epi. 3).

To sharpen the sense of how differently Shakespeare's play registers when its history is muted I will examine Kenneth Branagh's movie Henry V, both because it is the best-known contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare and because it puts into cinematic practice one contemporary critical perspective on the playwright's work. Through his own act of history-making—the re-shaping of Shakespeare's text—Branagh alleviates the discordance the original play enacts, replacing the "irrevocable ills" of its history (Hazlitt's phrase) with a reassuring confirmation of Henry and his military exploits.


When in 2 Henry IV the new king rejects Falstaff, he acts on the expectation that segregation will protect him from...

(The entire section contains 11228 words.)

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