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

William Shakespeare

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

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 contamination of disreputability ("I banish thee … Not to come near our person by ten mile" [5.5.63, 65]). Henry's position as monarch depends upon the social distance, imaged here as geographical distance, between him and the commoners who were once his compatriots. His relationship to them encapsulates dynamics of solidarity and difference that, while personal to Henry, also characterize class interaction in Elizabethan society.

These dynamics come to the fore in Henry's confrontation with the soldiers in Henry V 4.1, where Shakespeare (who may well indicate his own allegiances in this scene by naming the primary interlocutor "Will") turns the convention of the disguised king into a vehicle for interrogating the moral and rhetorical conditions under which Henry's war is fought.6 The device allows the playwright to dramatize the exchange in contentious terms, without a frontal assault on the conventions of deference that ordinarily regulated conversation with the king.7 In particular the scene allows for the expression of misgivings by those who, lacking any say in the instigation or conduct of wars, are nonetheless called upon to fight them. The image of political dialogue this episode embodies is incompatible with the insularity from its subjects claimed by absolutist monarchy, summed up in Henry's words: "The King is not bound to answer" (4.1.155). There is here a challenge, albeit oblique, to the claim of executive privilege asserted by political leaders (whether royal or presidential) who are pressed with demands for accountability.8 Binding the king to answer exposes royal rationales to the objections of the soldiers and the scrutiny of the audience.

The overriding question in war is that of responsibility, dramatized in this play by recurring images of the victims: "The guiltless drops [of blood and] … waste in brief mortality" Henry admonishes the Archbishop with (1.2.25, 28); the widows, childless mothers, and orphans the English blame the French for (1.2.284-88 and 2.4.105-9); the "fair virgins," "flow'ring infants," and old men who will be sacrificed if Harfleur does not surrender (3.3.14, 20-21, 36-40); and the dismembered soldiers so graphically described by Williams in this scene ("all those legs, and arms, and heads, chopp'd off in a battle" [4.1.135-36]). The task for political leaders who urge war is to sanction this carnage, and secure obedience to marching orders, while disclaiming personal responsibility: in official rhetoric war is never a private project, subjectively motivated, but thrust upon the leadership by the most compelling of external circumstances, typically the insupportable conduct of the enemy in violation of the rights of the nation or its allies.9 The soldier's dilemma, on the other hand, grows out of the compulsory character of his participation: either criminal disobedience to the king who conscripted him, or damnation for unlawful homicide. "I am afeard," Williams says, "there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument?" (4.1.141-43). The king's initial response is disingenuous, comparing the innately murderous enterprise of war with accidental death while traveling. He then deflects attention to the pre-existing, sinful condition of his soldiers, ignoring the moral cloud that hangs over war itself since, as Williams has pointed out, the conduct required of soldiers so squarely violates the ethical code for acceptable social behavior. Finally, Henry audaciously grafts his military enterprise onto a scheme of divine justice: "War is [God's] beadle, war is his vengeance" (4.1.169). But the Utopian picture of war as the instrument for meting out justice is contradicted both by the repeated incantations of the slaughter of innocents noted above, and by the outcome of this battle itself: the young (and unarmed) boys are treacherously killed.

Though Williams is momentarily persuaded that the soldier is personally answerable, he is immediately at odds with the king again, over royal rhetoric:

K. Hen. I myself heard the King say he would not be ransom'd.

Will. Ay, he said so, to make us fight cheerfully; but when our throats are cut, he may be ransom'd, and we ne'er the wiser.


His response is another reminder that the skeptical soldiers are quite capable of resisting the blandishments of the king, treating his speeches as strategies to secure their compliance and Henry as willing to sacrifice the truth to do so.

Henry tries to recuperate the king's position with personal endorsement ("If I live to see it, I will never trust his word after" [4.1.195-96]), but this only prompts Williams's ridicule:

You pay him then! That's a perilous shot out of an elder-gun, that a poor and a private displeasure can do against a monarch! You may as well go about to turn the sun to ice with fanning in his face with a peacock's feather. You'll never trust his word after! come, 'tis a foolish saying. (4.1.197-202)

The personal relationship Henry's declaration envisions is only appropriate among those of his same class—aristocrats in his inner circle. For commoners his threat is, as Williams rightly recognizes, a futile fantasy, its impotence signifying in particular the lack of any effective means of redress for subjects who are lied to by their king, and, more generally, the great political gulf between Crown and commoner. That gulf is hinted at again in the conclusion to Henry's encounter with his soldiers. Not only does he fail to establish with them the fraternity he extols, his conversation with Williams ends in a quarrel that is renewed after the battle, when Henry makes this sympathetic figure the butt of his joke. Anticipating Williams's understandable resentment, Henry then tries to buy him off with money (4.8.39-61). But this soiling of Henry's triumph persists with the presence of the bitter Williams on stage throughout the body count that certifies the English victory.

The distance between Crown and subject played out here is a double-edged sword. While the king's power rests on the social and political difference that rank embodies, undue emphasis on inequality will undermine the consent necessary to peaceful and orderly government even under a relatively absolutist monarchy. Even those without privilege or power must be given to feel they have some stake in the system, a feeling the rhetoric of rank, with its emphasis on distinction, cannot engender but only erode. Hence the potency of the concept of divinely ordained hierarchy as an image of the sociopolitical order. It conferred dignity upon each person, whatever his/her location in the scheme (through the concept of place and the doctrine of vocation). It also provided a vision of solidarity through shared participation in a common order, even while it reinforced with religious authority the difference that was at the heart of that order.

During war the tension between solidarity and distinction is especially acute, because of the numbers of the non-elite required to mount an effective campaign. The unequal allocation of burden and danger according to class rank threatens to discredit the legitimacy of the entire structure, engendering the skepticism reflected in the soldiers' arguments.10 The anxiety over these class dynamics is an important impulse behind the rhetoric of unity so prominent in act 1, providing as it does imaginative visions of difference forged into harmony. It is obedience, after all, that is the glue of the honeybees' social fabric in the Archbishop's vision, ultimately issuing in "a thousand actions [that] … / End in one purpose" (1.2.211-12).11

Henry's own language, vacillating between the rhetoric of fraternity and that of disparity, reflects the stresses of class that the war brings to the surface. When alone, Henry voices "a self-justifying complaint," painting a derogatory picture of "the wretched slave" with "gross brain" who sleeps soundly while the king keeps watch "to maintain the peace" (4.1.268, 282-83).12 This "wretch," however, bears no likeness to the troubled, articulate men he has just encountered, who are more likely to have sparked his annoyance at being "subject to the breath / Of every fool" (4.1.234-35).13 Henry's insights into the theatrical character of power do not have the levelling effect they might in other mouths. Instead, he uses those insights to draw yet another distinction between those who govern, who understand the nature of power, and their subjects, who do not, and thus are consigned to the role of passive spectators before the "ceremony" of authority, which "creates [in them] awe and fear" (4.1.247).14

In contrast, when Henry addresses his men, the rhetoric of solidarity dominates. The fraternal image that climaxes his Crispin Day speech—"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers" (4.3.60-62)—attempts to inoculate the common soldier against the corrosive effects of class tension. In an effort to level status differences Henry first figuratively ennobles the soldiers ("be he ne'er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition" [4.3.62-63]), then abases their social superiors ("And gentlemen in England, now a-bed, / Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here" [4.3.64-65]). The class-based distribution of the hazards of war proves a recurring problem that military commanders must address, evidenced by the strikingly similar appeal in the Persian Gulf war, tailored to fit the composition of an all-volunteer army. A U.S. tank commander concluded his call to arms by focusing on the class issue:

Like I told you before, this is not the Izod, Polo-shirt, Weejuns loafers crowd. Not a whole lot of kids here whose dads are anesthesiologists or justices of the Supreme Court. We're the poor, white, middle-class and the poor black kids from the block and Hispanics from the barrio.

We're just as good as the [expletive deleted] rest, because the honest thing is that's who I want to go to war with, people like you.15

The status that participation in war confers, however, is compensation for the soldiers' inferior class position in the society back home and lasts only as long as that participation is required. Shakespeare's play pointedly registers the transitory quality of this psychic reparation in his allusions to the underclass of returning soldiers, as we will see in a moment, as well as in the alacrity with which Henry himself abandons the expedient after the battle. Recounting the dead, he reinstitutes class discrimination: nobility and gentry are specifically identified, while the other casualties are dismissed with "None else of name" (4.8.105).16 The "fellowship of death" (4.8.101) offered in war is revealed as yet another privilege reserved to the upper class. The short-lived quality of class fluidity serves to confirm the soldiers' skepticism about Henry's appeals.


The most prominent of the commoners in the play, Pistol, who survives the battle to return home, registers a facet of warmaking all too recognizable to the Elizabethan audience: returning veterans.17 The most visible problem on the home front flowing from the military posture of the late Elizabethan state was the condition of the returning soldiers, most of whom were "sick, starving, and penniless," forced, like Falstaff's men, "to beg during life" (1 Henry IV 5.3.38), or, like Pistol, to steal.18 For many of the veterans such a way of life was not altogether novel, as they had been vagrants or criminals before they were impressed. Their poor character was not, however, an incidental side-effect but a deliberate government policy. In the eyes of the regime, drafting ne'er-do-wells was an especially efficient way of filling the ranks, because, as the Privy Council opined, it afforded "great ease and good to the country to be ridd of those kinde of people," people "whoe otherwyse wilbe a burthen to the country."19 Thomas Nashe's dictum, "If they have no service abroad, they will make mutinies at home," was close to the government's heart.20

The policy, however, like the soldiers, came back to haunt the regime. Most ominous in the government's view was the veterans' political potency, in their own right and as part of the growing numbers of vagrants swelled by the economic crises of 1594-1598.21 Repeated proclamations and the institution of martial law were just as ineffectual in controlling them as Parliamentary relief acts were in alleviating their poverty.

The all-too-visible presence of the soldier on the Elizabethan landscape highlighted the ambivalent but immutable connections between foreign policy and domestic conditions. From 1588 to the end of Elizabeth's reign, England was in a continuous state of war, drafting more than 100,000 men for service overseas, almost a third of these in the years 1596-1599, the period of most intense military activity.22 The increasing demands for men and money integral to the escalating militarization imposed substantial burdens on the people, leading to significant, and ominous, resistance.23 The returning veteran at once evoked uneasiness over the costs of militarization in terms of expanding state authority and financial burdens, and registered apprehension over the government's failure to alleviate a deteriorating domestic situation. More than any other single figure he crystallized the intense concern over the questions of governance so pervasive in the England of the late 1590s. These tensions suggestively intrude on Henry's military campaign, both before and after battle. Gower castigates Pistol at length as "a gull, a fool, a rogue, that now and then goes to the wars, to grace himself at his return into London under the form of a soldier" (3.6.67-69), but in doing so draws attention to the domestic after-effects of the war policy.24 In his final speech Pistol reiterates the human costs:

Old I do wax, and from my weary limbs
Honor is cudgell'd. Well, bawd I'll turn,

And something lean to cutpurse of quick hand.
To England will I steal, and there I'll steal;
And patches will I get unto these cudgell'd
And swear I got them in the Gallia wars.

In the very act of seeming to fulfill all the worst accusations of Gower, Pistol still engenders sympathy as a result of his humiliation (and beating) at the hands of the Welsh captain, Fluellen, who is intemperately inflamed by ethnic pride.25 And, placed in the frame of the loss of his wife and source of income, a life of theft becomes not, as it was for the government, an occasion for moral declamation, but something the audience could understand, even momentarily identify with.

The sympathy elicited should not obscure the disturbing effect of this speech in the context of the play. Though Pistol is an enthusiastically loyal subject—"from heart-string /I love the lovely bully" he says of the king (4.1.47-48)—the historical conditions he echoes undermine Henry's rhetoric of glory with an account of postwar conditions readily recognizable as the social reality.26 Coming well after Henry's victory is certified, Pistol's speech serves as a sharp reminder of what the war does not resolve, what Elizabeth's wars did not resolve, what, in fact, these wars brought with them: returning soldiers roaming the margins of society reputedly posing a potential threat to its center. Even a battle successful by the count of bodies imposed stresses on the social fabric that victory could not obscure. Those stresses would, for many in Shakespeare's audience, not just inhibit reflexive celebration of Henry's project, but spawn a questioning attitude toward it. The soldiers' challenges would find fertile ground in the audience's own history.


Most of the soldiers, of course, are not just any commoners, but Henry's erstwhile associates, living representatives of his past. Much criticism views the play as the progressive diminution of the commoners' role in this respect, measuring Henry's development by his repudiation of them. Derek Traversi sees them as "survivors from another order of things … out of place in th[e] new order" of this play, while Branagh makes their rejection a test of Henry's will: "He must forget Falstaff and Bardolph and his old cronies."27 The Archbishop anticipates these views, wishing at the very outset to see these "companies unletter'd, rude, and shallow" (1.1.55) as a feature of Henry's history, which, like "his wildness … / Seem'd to die too" (1.1.26-27). His premature recital, replicated by later critics, evinces the desire to banish these figures and soften the effects they produce in the play. That is, however, palpably difficult for the audience to do. The alienation of these figures from Henry is not an adequate benchmark of their impact in the play. Indeed, their persistent presence in the face of his rebuff signals that Henry is not the unequivocal center of this work critics often take him for. The remarkable staying power of Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, and the Boy is a hint of the extent to which their role in the play overgoes (though it is firmly linked with) their social station.

Their unruly, disruptive effect contaminates the king's vaunted rhetoric, of which they provide a perverse measure by showing its ineffectiveness. His exhortation before Harfleur ("Once more unto the breach" 3.1.1]) is deflated by the failure of his eloquence to move these men. Faced with the "hot knocks" of war they are pointedly unimpressed with stirring speech, counted among "the millions of common men" George Orwell describes, "to whom these high sentiments make no appeal."28 And, hard on the heels of his Crispin Day speech in 4.3, the only confrontation between the forces we actually witness in Shakespeare's play is Pistol's ransom scene (4.4), a "clownesque" rendition of the battle "fought by two cowards and a child."29 The tenor of Henry's speeches is contradicted by the action on stage.

The commoners' rhetoric also poses a challenge to the efforts by the king's circle and the Chorus to dominate the way the war is perceived. Though the king warns of "much fall of blood" (1.2.25) the war will bring, the rhetoric of Henry and his circle consistently runs to the euphemistic: the natural innocence of honeybees that "[m]ake boot upon the summer's velvet buds" (1.2.194); the clever punning on the Dauphin's feebly insulting gift, diverting the bloodletting of the imminent war to witty "mocking" (1.2.285-86); and the harmonious concord even in a society threatened with the added burdens of war, "[c]ongreeing in a full and natural close, / Like music" (1.2.182-83).30 The Archbishop's desire to hear historical realities rendered as pleasing musical harmonies is reiterated in official speech.

But the commoners' earthy language ("Let senses rule" is Pistol's motto [2.3.49]) implies a wholly different orientation to the war than this official optimism. Take Pistol's own ringing call to arms:

Let us to France, like horse-leeches, my boys,
To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck!

His earthiness works to distance the war effort from the moral gloss Henry tries to put on it. Juxtapositions like this, singular instances of Bakhtin's "unresolvable dialogues," refuse royal rhetoric the preeminence it at once presumes and aspires to. But it is not just that Pistol's "antiheroic echo" punctures Henry's rhetoric of noble seriousness by putting the war in a comic and bluntly material frame.31 The commoners' appropriation of the war for frankly personal interests also infects the "high" motives implied by that rhetoric: their exuberant larceny calls those motives into question, rendering that "discourse of war" vulnerable to critical reassessment.32


Announcements of the commoners' demise are inapt even concerning the deceased Falstaff who, "[a]live or dead," according to David Quint, "haunts the play from the wings."33 His brooding presence brackets Henry's triumph, striking an insistently sour note. When he reveals the traitors' plot, Henry saves his most bitter invective for Scroop ("his bedfellow," who seemed "[c]onstant in spirit, not swerving with the blood" [2.2.8, 133]) for betraying their intimate relationship. But personal disloyalty, for rejecting Falstaff, is just what Henry himself stands accused of by the commoners: "The King has kill'd his heart," and "hath run bad humors on the knight" (2.1.88, 121-22).34 Sandwiching Henry's discovery and denunciation of the traitors between these insinuations and the extended account of Falstaff's death in 2.3 invites the audience to make associations, even draw parallels, between the traitors' sedition and Henry's own rejection, parallels that raise disquieting questions about his character.

On the verge of the English victory Falstaff rears his unruly head again, reviving the issue of the king's responsibility for his death. Fluellen, the embodiment of an antiquarian attitude toward history, starts out his analogy between Alexander and Henry (4.7.22-53) in characteristically pedantic fashion, adducing the topographic similarity in their birthplaces. That raises no alarm because the comparison with Alexander seems comfortably complimentary (Fluellen and Gower agree on Alexander's greatness), with the "figures" all moving toward the similarity between the leaders ("the situations, look you, is both alike" [4.7.26]). But when Fluellen touches a nerve, recalling that Alexander "did … kill his best friend" (4.7.37-38), Gower sounds the alarm, declaring "Our King is not like him in that" (4.7.40). The momentum toward likeness is so strong, however, that Fluellen's effort to alter its course is in vain. Instead, he digs himself in deeper, trying to contrast Alexander's mental state—"being in his ales and his cups" (4.7.45-46)—with Henry's—"[b]eing in his right wits" (4.7.46-47). This is a curious defense, giving Alexander as it does a plausible excuse for his action, while locating Henry's fault squarely in "his good judgments" (4.7.47). But even this distinction is immediately eroded when Henry reenters, demonstrating precisely the choler Fluellen just disparaged Alexander for ("I was not angry since I came to France / Until this instant" [4.7.55-56]), with the same murderous result: his order to kill the French prisoners. Fluellen here not only keeps alive the spectre of Henry's rejection of Falstaff, but in doing so demonstrates the hazards, or the unexpected fruitfulness, of drawing inferences from historical materials. The past, like Falstaff and the other commoners, has an ungovernable quality that resists appropriation for special pleading.35


Kenneth Branagh's movie is typically compared, not with Shakespeare's play, but with Lawrence Olivier's 1944 film, the consensus holding with Branagh that he presents "a much darker world" than the earlier film, rendering Henry as more complex.36 But the comparison with Olivier overlooks the fact that Branagh has altered Shakespeare's work in a way that portrays the king and his war in a far less uncomfortable, more approving light.37 His excisions from Shakespeare's text work to divert attention from Henry as enmeshed in the "irrevocable ills" of history Hazlitt laments, to Henry as historically disembodied, his actions solely expressions of his personal temperament and the demands of his role as king. The film signals the shift from the complex relationships in Shakespeare's play to character both by eliminating allusions to those relationships (as in the case of the dynastic ambitions of the "traitor" Cambridge), and by simply pruning the other figures' roles, especially those who, like the commoners, might impinge on or question the narrative of the king's maturation.38 Branagh uses the cinematic techniques available as well, continually directing the eye to focus on the king, not as part of an ensemble (as he would be on stage), not even as party to a conversation. What others say in the film is decidedly secondary, their diminished function as approving audience underscored by the persistent pattern of reaction shots to Henry's speeches—shots of nobles, common soldiers, and especially of the French herald Montjoy. Uniformly positive, these shots display appreciation of, respect for, and deference to Henry (especially from one who is his enemy), cuing the audience to what its reaction should be.39 Through these devices Branagh not only excites the pleasures Hazlitt extols, but confers on Henry an authority immunized from the discomforting echoes of other characters' language or action.

It is worth noting briefly how Branagh's rendition mutes the commoners' disquieting role, by:

  1. eliminating Pistol's "suck, suck" lines and his advice to his wife, hard on the heels of Falstaff's death, that "oaths are straws, men's faiths are wafer-cakes" (2.3.51);
  2. eliminating the whole of Fluellen's historical analogy of Alexander and Henry that revives Falstaff's ghost (4.7);
  3. substantially shortening Henry's disclaimer of responsibility for his soldiers' ends (4.1), including his audacious claim that God will use Henry's war to mete out just punishment (4.1.169);
  4. cutting the whole of Pistol's ransom scene (4.4) that provides a ludicrous contrast to the seriousness of the official rhetoric;
  5. cutting the Boy's complaint over the injustice of Pistol's survival when Bardolph and Nym were hanged (4.4.70-74)—in the movie Nym's death is not, as it is in Shakespeare, a comment on Henry's military discipline, but a mini-morality play, occurring while Nym is stealing on the battlefield;
  6. shortening Williams's rebuke of Henry (4.1.197-201) and cutting the scene in which Henry bullies Williams over the latter's challenge (4.8) then tries to buy him off—in the movie Henry returns the glove with an unspoken air of bonhomie, suitably impressing Williams with his modest restraint.

Virtually all the dialogic effects are erased by these cuts. Without the perverse echoes of the official rhetoric, and the indecorous and disjointed responses to Henry's speeches, the audience is deprived of either the impulse or the frame for responding critically to that language. In its place Branagh has inserted a set of flashbacks to Henry's prior friendship with the commoners, which are geared not to raise questions about his disassociation, but to show that throughout his relationship with them he was consistently forthright about his intentions. Their disillusionment is rendered as a function of their own self-deception, not Henry's disloyalty or guile; no question about his character even arises.40

Adopting a perspective that is prominent in contemporary criticism of Shakespeare's play, Branagh shapes the film into a "bildungsroman, " "a trial by combat," in Peter S. Donaldson's Branagh himself words, personality."41 Branagh described the plays as "a journey toward the maturity" by the end of which Henry "has learned about true leadership."42 As presented by those Shakespeare critics who share this view, the often discomfiting social and political constitutents of Henry's situation are subordinated to character: "The problem of the state," in Derek Traversi's words, "becomes … that of the individual at its head."43 The narrative traces the progressive adaptation of the individual to the demands of office: "In the process of becoming a ruler," Alvin B. Kernan says, "his personal self, the essential 'I,' is lost forever as the man disappears into the role his work demands."44 In accordance with tragic conventions, the personal sacrifice the character endures distinguishes him from others (Branagh wanted to "emphasize Henry's growing isolation"), but it also endows him with "the dignity of tragedy" so important to Hazlitt, what Branagh calls "moral gravitas."45 In the economy of this narrative, it is the necessary correlative of Henry's maturation: his accommodation is his triumph.46 Henry's "heroism depends," according to Donaldson, "on his capacity for self-suppression and [his] personal growth is fostered by inward assent to the necessary evils of politics, war, and courtship."47 Working off the neo-romantic conception of the sociopolitical as the arena not of freedom and empowerment, but of constraint and compulsion, this version is infused with the aura of tragedy by substituting intractable political reality for fate as the hero's antagonist.48 It is precisely the "irrevocable ills" of history that Henry must conquer.

Whatever loss he suffers in doing so, the experience is seen as conferring on Henry an enhanced awareness, in particular a maturer comprehension of war. His superior discernment makes Branagh's Henry the perfect commander to lead his country into battle. That leadership, emerging from his "hard-won," painful awareness, redeems his war from several threats accented by Shakespeare: 1) the cynicism and doubtful legality that infected its initiation; 2) the deflation of its noble rhetoric by the commoners; and 3) the questions about Henry's own character which the Falstaff allusions persistently raise.49 Recognizing the role played in Branagh's rendition by Henry's renovated consciousness allows us to see how tragic knowledge itself serves as yet another instrument for legitimizing military enterprise. This theme, too, is echoed in the Gulf War. When Norman Schwartzkopf claimed that "I am certainly antiwar," whatever weight his claim carried derived from the assertion of the same knowledge Henry attained: "I know what war is."50 The tragic resonance this acute knowledge carries (Branagh's "moral gravitas") lends to its subject a kind of heroism. As one reviewer declared of Henry, "Though you still feel he's a hero, it's not so much because he's won as because he knows the cost of the victory."51

It is because of the focus on Henry's tragic knowledge that the film's realistic presentation does not in any simple way add up to a negative attitude toward war. Reviewers quite rightly respond to its "grimly authentic, bloody spectacle," its "down-to-earth" depiction of war, the "muck of reality" and "bloody horror" it displays.52 But the bloodiness of its spectacle does not make its message antiwar, anymore than the heaps of gore displayed in some contemporary films automatically engender revulsion over the violence that produced them.53 To the contrary, its grittiness finally celebrates Henry and his exploits by energizing the sense of tragedy. It is worth repeating that the only battlefield confrontation Shakespeare actually depicts is Pistol's comic extortion. In contrast, the prolonged, graphic portrayal of battle in Branagh's film intensifies the test of leadership Henry undergoes (an "ordeal by combat" one critic calls it), heightening his heroic status for having endured it.54

The narrative of maturation endows Henry with an aura of detachment that works to inoculate him against the moral stigma of having caused the violence. Nowhere is this dynamic so well dramatized in the film as in Henry's panoramic march across the battlefield, as sole pallbearer for the slain Boy (whom he carried "like a cross," according to one reviewer), accompanied by the swelling chorus of a hymn.55 This procession is wholly Branagh's invention; in Shakespeare's play Henry himself gives no indication at any time that he is even aware of the murder of the boys by the French.56 As an "elegaic summation of everything that has been suffered in the movie," according to one reviewer, this scene "bring[s] an undertone of near-tragic solemnity."57 This comment captures the climactic, cathartic function of Henry's march, but we need to be far more precise about its registration. Though the tone is mournful, there is no hint of remorse in Henry. Branagh, instead, presents the Boy's death as a sacrifice, a martyrdom that, through appropriation (by Henry as surrogate parent), the king at once acknowledges and disavows any role in bringing about.58 The Boy's innocence, with his blood, spills over onto the king.

The martyrdom sanctions the royal enterprise by provoking moral repugnance toward those who would commit such a barbaric act and the consequent validation of those who oppose them.59 The revulsion over the Boy's murder thus works to fix the difference between "civilized war" and the simple savagery from which it must always and can never be cleanly distinguished.60 Henry's march proclaims his immunity from the disposition of those, soldiers and nations alike, who (borrowing from his own threats to the people of Harfleur) in "liberty of bloody hand" commit "headly murther, spoil, and villainy" (3.3.12, 32).


The Manichaean division between the civilized and the barbaric this shot in Branagh's film works to institute, together with the aura of Henry's detachment that reinforces it, are both carefully thwarted in Shakespeare's text. The "lamentable slaughter" (Holinshed's phrase), not of the boys, but of the French prisoners, ordered by Henry, bears out Hazlitt's dictum that "No reader of history can be a lover of kings."61 Expunging this material from the film, as Branagh does, not only works to salvage Henry's "dignity," it also eliminates an incident that would warn the audience against precisely the kind of manipulation of historical material that Branagh's alteration itself represents.

The first of Henry's two orders to kill the prisoners is precipitated by the news Henry recites that "[t]he French have reinfore'd their scatter'd men. / Then every soldier kill his prisoners" (4.6.36-37).62 Although Henry does not know of the boys' deaths, Gower, in his absence, links that event tightly to the king's order:

'Tis certain there's not a boy left alive, and the cowardly rascals that ran from the battle ha' done this slaughter … [W]herefore the King, most worthily, hath caus'd every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O, 'tis a gallant king! (4.7.5-10)63

When Henry reenters fulminating ("I was not angry since I came to France / Until this instant" [4.7.55-56]), Gower's apology has led the audience to expect his anger to be directed against the boys' murder, which is exactly the response Branagh has reconstructed. In Shakespeare, however, Henry so intensely resents the refusal of the French who linger on the field to concede ("they do offend our sight" he says [4.7.59]) that he repeats his order to execute the prisoners: "We'll cut the throats of those we have" (4.7.63).64 The audience's surprise that this, and not the boys' deaths, is the provocation, draws us back to Gower's brazen historical revision, revealing its fabricated quality: the loyal captain was not reporting, but inventing a connection, supplying a mitigating motivation where none existed to rehabilitate the monarch's record. Branagh's own juggling—refashioning Henry's dubious indignation into "righteous" anger—bears out Shakespeare's acute recognition of the persistent penchant to sanitize the history of those who wield power.65

There is, however, an even darker strain running through the prisoners episode that is also excised from Branagh's retelling. In Shakespeare Henry first issues the order to kill the French captives immediately after Exeter's emotional rendition of the deaths of two of Henry's nobles:

Suffolk first died, and York, all haggled over,
Comes to him where in gore he lay insteeped,
And takes him by the beard, kisses the gashes
That bloodily did yawn upon his face.
He cries aloud, "Tarry my cousin Suffolk!
My soul shall thine keep company to heaven …"
So did he turn and over Suffolk's neck
He threw his wounded arm, and kiss'd his lips,
And so espous'd to death, with blood he seal'd
A testament of noble-ending love.
                              (4.6.11-16, 24-27)

The scene so moved Exeter that it "fore'd" tears from him (4.7.28). The king is similarly moved, but works to suppress his tears, so that his order to kill the French prisoners, which follows immediately, comes at a moment of intense, but unwelcome, emotion for Henry.

This richly suggestive episode serves to amplify the issues of class and character I have discussed by providing a discomforting glimpse into the way masculine identity is shaped. Prominent in this passage is the insistence on the erotic quality of the contact between the dying noblemen (especially the repeated kisses [13 and 25]). But the anxiety the scene records is not provoked by the physical intimacy displayed, which is lovingly affirmed by Exeter's narrative. That anxiety, instead, accompanies the tearful reaction by Exeter and Henry, and is bound up with the conspicuously gendered terms in which that reaction is rendered (to which I will return in a moment). The absence of any hint of revulsion over the manifest homoerotic quality of this moment suggests that, despite the vehement denunciations of "sodomy" in Elizabethan England, it was not the homoerotic per se that was stigmatized.66 The specific environment surrounding such contact must be attended to in order to discern those other elements whose presence shaped the way male bonding was perceived and represented.

The element of class is vital here. The fact that the bond forged is carefully confined to noble-men (men "kept together in [their] chivalry" [4.6.19]) works to shelter homoeroticism from moral censure. The observance of class propriety immunized the encounter from the charge of sexual impropriety, for, as Jonathan Goldberg points out, the reaction to homosexual contact turned largely on whether or not it was "conducive to maintaining social hierarchies and distinctions."67

The aristocratic character of the encounter points toward the tension between male camaraderie and class differentiation that runs through the play, a tension virtually silenced in Branagh's rendering. In the Crispin's Day speech, for instance, it is the force of the former ("we band of brothers") that is offered as overriding class distinctions. With supportive reaction shots and swelling music Branagh visually presents the occasion as achieving the comradeship it professes.68 Similarly, in Shakespeare Henry's rejection of Falstaff punctuates the superior force of class divisions, but Branagh's film works against the importance of class as governing homosocial relations by treating Henry's relationship with Falstaff and company as motivated by personal integrity rather than socioeconomic dictate.69 Male conviviality also obscures the force of class dynamics when Branagh reconstructs Henry's relationship with Williams to end on a note of genial bonhomie rather than smoldering resentment with Williams unappeased by Henry's effort to bribe him for his loyalty. Finally, there is Henry's climactic march across the battlefield with the body of the Boy, a tableau that denies the significance of class with a visual image uniting the social extremes of prince and pauper in poignant male fellowship.

The simplistic terms of Branagh's camaraderie are revealed when compared to Shakespeare's critical probing of the way the martial enterprise—the other contextual element that sanctions homoerotic contact—shapes masculine identity. The relationship achieved by Suffolk and York is "sealed by blood" (4.6.26). Their shared project of violence helps insulate their frankly sexual display from the taint of either immorality or effeminacy. "Blood" certifies their masculinity, individually and "together in … chivalry."70 Thus those who forego participation in combat find their manliness questioned—"their manhoods held cheap" (4.3.66)—in the presence of veteran soldiers.

But the blood is threatened with dilution by tears, Exeter complaining of how the scene of Suffolk and York "fore'd"

Those waters from me which I would have
But I had not so much of man in me,
And all my mother came into mine eyes
And gave me up to tears.

In rendering tears as the diminution of the male by the feminine, Exeter affirms a view of manhood that "founds masculinity on the resistance to effeminization."71 In this perspective military enterprise, premised as it was at this time on the exclusion of women, was an important crucible for forging male identity. In contemporary commentary it was nearly a cliché to oppose martial enterprise to debilitating femininity. "This is no life for men-at-arms to live," Achate complains of Aeneas in Marlowe's Dido Queen of Carthage:

Where dalliance doth consume a soldier's
And wanton motions of alluring eyes
Effeminate our minds, inured to war.72

The irony in Shakespeare's account is that the military context has solicited the very quality whose exclusion was its premise. The male camaraderie that war engenders (in both senses) produces a feminized emotional response at odds with the martial context, initially banished from it as a condition for establishing that camaraderie in the first place. This "return of the repressed" is not confined to the personal level in the play, however. The masculine world Shakespeare's work constructs, especially the royal power it anatomizes, is haunted by the woman. Henry's claim to France originates in and is grounded on his relationship to his female forbear, and in the end, confirmed and consolidated by his marriage to a princess.73 The so-called "wooing scene" highlights the severe ambivalence of the militarized masculine towards the feminine, an ambivalence that Branagh effaces.74 He puts aside Henry's political motives, playing him as a clumsy but charming young man courting a bemused but finally captivated woman whose reticence is cast as nothing more than wily coquetry. The climactic kiss becomes a sign of mutual consent, their love a warrant for the murderous conflict that has brought them together. In Henry's character the warrior and lover mesh in genial compatibility.

To play the scene this way, however, requires Branagh to omit those lines in which Henry himself acknowledges Katherine's resistance to his blandishments: "I cannot so conjure up the spirit of love in her" (5.2.288-89). Her coldness provides the occasion for another revealing episode of male comradeship, this time grounded in sexual conquest complete with bawdy puns (5.2.292-99, 307-14). The analogy of courtship with military siege (5.2.320-27) marks the extent to which heterosexual relations are here assimilated to the martial masculine culture, while the bargain struck over Katherine's betrothal (5.2.343-47) between erstwhile enemies underscores her status as Henry's "capital demand" (5.2.96), framing the scene in the political context.75 The scene's conclusion undoes Henry's pose as ingenuous inamorato; whatever there is of lover is subsumed by the warrior.76

The final, most shocking element of the masculine culture that Shakespeare presents is revealed in the abrupt reversal of Henry's emotions in reaction to the Suffolk/York episode: moved to the verge of tears at one instant (4.6.33-34), then immediately, hearing of French reinforcements, ordering the French prisoners executed (37-38). This moment embodies the troubling suggestion that the sentiment spawned by the intense male comradeship in war harbors within it a savagery, that the potential for tears is just as apt to produce blood. The masculinity whose lapse is threatened by the effeminacy those tears represent can only be recuperated with violence: blood, "the machismo of slaughter" "saving manhood," purging from it the debilitation signified by tears.77 The sentiment that accompanies homosocial intimacy is redirected, fueling the violence that in war secures the masculine from the danger, not of the male enemy, but of the indigenous feminine.

Branagh eliminates these troubling implications, reversing the complexity and doubt Shakespeare evokes about masculinity in war. He cannot resist the seductive visual feast that battle affords the camera, the opportunity for spectacle, however "gritty" and "realistic." His battle shots climax with a series of slow motion close-ups of various individual soldiers, focusing on their faces in the midst of mortal combat. None show any trace of fear. Instead, the slow motion style underscores the intensity of their effort, portraying them at the very limits of their capacities. Especially striking is the series' random mixing of French and English soldiers whose nationality, because of the mud, cannot be identified. As the battle has progressed, the national identity of the participants has waned in importance, replaced by the shared quality of their ordeal, the mortal threat and the material obstacles of rain and mud that all endure together. Combat thus takes on the character of a joint and communal enterprise.78 Friend and foe having become indistinguishable, the common—male—character of the conflict becomes ascendant.79

Whatever the "bloody horror," Branagh confers on this masculine experience a beneficent force. The extremity of the combatants' situation provides the opportunity for heroic exploit. In it the soldiers tap their full potential, registered in the epic effort depicted in the close-up shots of their faces. Branagh uses the Dauphin in particular to demonstrate how combat can ennoble a man, empowering him, as the U.S. Army tells us in recruiting advertisements, to "be all [he] can be." Up to now he has been nothing but a brash braggart, seemingly incapable of making good on his taunts. In Shakespeare, in the face of imminent French defeat, with the French army in disarray, he falls into despair, advocating suicide ("Let's stab ourselves" [4.5.7]). But Branagh cuts this fatalism, giving him instead the climactic lines of the scene, taken from another character in Shakespeare, to have him express courageous resolve:

The devil take order now! I'll to the throng;
Let life be short, else shame will be too long.

Soon thereafter, Branagh (but not Shakespeare) has him confront Henry on the battlefield and match him in combat. By drawing out qualities we would not have suspected from this blowhard, the film displays armed conflict in the full force of its redemptive power.

Abandoning Shakespeare's probing examination of the problematic origin and product of male comradeship in war, Branagh instead reinforces the cinematic spectacle's rehearsal of the timeworn notion that warfare provides the optimal occasion for men to achieve their highest fulfillment. He thus allows Henry and us—the audience—to evade the full force of Burgundy's warning that when men "nothing do but meditate on blood," they "grow like savages" (5.2.60, 59).


I am grateful for the very helpful responses to earlier versions of this essay by my colleagues Jim Morrison and John Thompson and by the readers for the journal.

1 William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845), 159, referring to Shakespeare's King John. Unless otherwise noted, all the quotations from Hazlitt are from this page.

2 All references to the plays are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974). I have silently deleted Evans's brackets.

3 Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 72.

4 Rather than negating the audience's enjoyment, the dissonance enhances it: its pleasure does not flow from its immobilization in "mute wonder" (1.1.49), but from accepting the invitation to "[w]ork, work your thoughts" (3.Ch.25) on the play's engagement with "the infuriating stubborness" of history (Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought [New York: Viking Press, 1968], 241).

5 M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981), 291.

6 See Patterson (note 3), 88.

7 When he rebukes Williams—"Your reproof is something too round" (4.1.203)—Henry himself tries to reintroduce into the debate the very conventions he has foregone by his concealment.

8 On the question of war in the Low Countries Elizabeth herself proceeded in the same fashion as Henry, seeking the assent of the people to her policy while denying that she was legally or ethically compelled to do so:

Although Kinges and Princes Soveraignes, owing their homage and service onely unto the Almightie God the king of al kings, are in that respect not bounde to yeeld account or render the reasons of their actions to any others but to God their only Soveraigne Lord: yet … wee are notwithstanding this our prerogative at this time specially mooved … to publish not onely to our owne naturali loving Subjectes, but also to all others our neighbours, … what our intention is at this time, and upon what just and reasonable grounds we are mooved to give aid to our Neighbours the naturali people of the lowe Countries … (quoted in Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's "Histories": Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy [San Marino: Huntington Library, 1963], 272)

9 See Alexander Leggati, Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays (New York: Routledge, 1988), 133. The disclaimer of Henry's personal interest runs through his rhetoric, most plainly expressed in the traitors scene: "Touching our person, we seek no revenge, / But we our kingdom's safety must so tender" (2.2.174-75).

10 The disparity is evoked by Falstaff's pithy image of conscripts as "food for powder, food for powder" (1 Henry IV 4.2.65-66).

11 The vision is regularly contradicted by the conflicts enacted on stage, most of which involved commoners: Nym against Pistol and Bardolph against both (2.2); Fluellen against all three (3.2); Pistol against Fluellen and Gower (3.6); and Will and Pistol each separately in conflict with Fluellen (4.8 and 5.1). There are also the traitors (2.2), of course, and the ethnic conflict within the army (3.2).

12 Patterson (note 3), 91.

13 The play reiterated this condition, rendering the king "the subject of the attention and judgment of an audience of subjects" (David Scott Kastan, "Proud Majesty Made A Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule," Shakespeare Quarterly 37 [1986]: 461), the debate on stage in 4.1 dramatizing the "impudente famyliaritie with theire betters" that theater provoked in the eyes of many of its opponents (Kastan, 462, quoting the rationale of the Merchant Taylors School for suspending plays).

14 Hazlitt [note 1] similarly emphasizes the "power [and] splendor" of kings that "dazzle[ ] the imagination" (158).

15 "A Tank Commander Lectures His Troops on War and Fear," The Raleigh News and Observer, 24 February 1991, 8J.

16 See Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951), 255.

17 Phyllis Rackin pits the commoners' "theatrical" nature against "history," the record of kings found in sixteenth-century prose historical works (Stages of History: Shakespeare 's English Chronicles [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990], chap. 5). But the self-definition of Shakespeare's own history plays suggests that the line between history and drama was not so definitive. Much of the commoners' impact flows precisely from their character as recognizably "historical," simultaneously a part of Henry's history and Elizabeth's.

18 Lindsay Boynton, "The Tudor Provost-Marshal," Economic History Review 77 (1982): 444. "The end of a war," according to C. G. Cruickshank, citing a contemporary commentator, "meant the beginning of beggary and calamity for many a poor soldier" (Elizabeth's Army [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966], 36).

19Acts of the Privy Council, vol. 27 (1597), 290; vol. 29 (1598), 62. In one month of 1596 alone 1,000 vagrants were conscripted from London (Roger B. Manning, Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England, 1509-1640 [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988], 184). There was occasional indication of official disapproval of the practice, but the predominant pattern is one of the Crown's continuing and increasingly unequivocal endorsement (Cruickshank [note 18], 26-30).

20 Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penilesse, His Supplication to the Divell, e d. G. B. Harrison (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1966), 85. The regime's policy gave a very practical twist to Henry IV's advice to "busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels" (2 Henry IV 4.5.213-14), busying as well the bodies of potential malcontents.

21 These fears were not misplaced, as the vets, in the manner of the Bonus Marchers of 1932, demonstrated in 1592 for back pay, and "played a conspicuous part in riots" both that year and in the more serious disorders of 1595 (Manning [note 19], 194, 203).

22 Paul A. Jorgensen, Shakespeare's Military World (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1956), 130.

23 In order to raise the army it wanted the government illegally violated the immunity of county militia from service abroad, prompting protest that threatened a full-blown constitutional crisis (see Lindsay Boynton, The Elizabethan Militia, 1558-1638 [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967], 165-89; Cruickshank [note 18], 1-16; and Penry Williams, The Tudor Regime [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979], 398-99). See also and . The corruption in the system of conscription, reflected in 1 Henry IV 4.2 and 2 Henry IV 3.2, aggravated the antagonism, contributing to the "profoundly uncooperative attitude" of soldiers caught in the system (Cruickshank, 289). Similar opposition was voiced to the increasing burden of financing military enterprise, as the Crown, in addition to raising taxes, shifted much of the cost to localities, prompting complaint, challenges, and that time-honored citizen riposte to taxes, evasion (see Wallace MacCaffrey, "Parliament and Foreign Policy," in The Parliaments of Elizabethan England, ed. D. M. Dean and N. L. Jones [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990], 83-87; and Penry Williams, "The Crown and the Counties," in The Reign of Elizabeth I, ed. Christopher Haigh [Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985], 125-46.

24 It is not surprising that Gower confuses actual veterans, as Pistol would be, with those who, in the words of one Royal Proclamation, beg "upon pretense of service in the wars" (Tudor Royal Proclamations, Vol. III: The Later Tudors (1588-1603) [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969], 196). The government itself regularly if tacitly discredited returning soldiers by blurring the distinction, in part because it was blurred in reality by vagrants who played on public sympathy by pretending to be vets. But denominating veterans as vagrants also removed any sanction they would have by reason of military service, and, in the linguistic calculus that distinguished deserving and unde-serving poor, minimized any responsibility the government would have for their plight.

25 Branagh cut out the antagonism between Fluellen and Pistol, finding it "resoundingly unfunny" (quoted in Robert F. Willson, Jr., "War and Reflection on War: The Olivier and Branagh Films of Henry V, " Shakespeare Bulletin 27 [1991]: 28).

26 See Leggati (note 9), 118. The reference to the "malady of France" (5.1.82) that killed Pistol's wife punningly reinforces the connection between domestic conditions and foreign expeditions.

27 Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: From Richard II to Henry V (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1957), 176. Branagh quoted in Benedict Nightingale, "Henry V Returns As a Monarch For This Era," New York Times, 5 November 1989, II. 18.

28 Quoted in James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990), 172.

29 Terry Hands, Director, in The Royal Shakespeare Company's Production of Henry V for the Centenary Season at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, ed. Sally Beauman (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1976), 25.

30 After the traitors are captured Henry further mitigates the reality of war's afflictions, calling the battle to come "a glorious enterprise," "a fair and lucky war," to which "every rub is smoothed on our way" (2.2.183, 184, 188).

31 Rackin (note 17), 243.

32 Thus the Chorus' oblique acknowledgment of personal gain—"With crowns imperial, crowns and coronets, / Promis'd to Harry and his followers" (2.Ch. 10-11)—is exposed by Pistol's avowal as a stately euphemism designed to deflect attention from an embarassing truth about the impulse driving this enterprise. The commoners' role as what Larry Champion calls "a foil to Henry's glorious exploits," spurs the audience to exercise political judgment, requiring them to re-evaluate Henry's conduct (Larry Champion, "The Noise of Threatening Drum ": Dramatic Strategy and Political Ideology in Shakespeare and the English Chronicle Plays [Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1990], 127-28).

33 David Quint, '"Alexander the Pig': Shakespeare on History and Poetry," in William Shakespeare's Henry V, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988), 64.

34 Leggatt (note 9), 131-32.

35 This episode is only one of several instances in which historical references introduce a problematic element, either uncovering a chink in Henry's ideological armor, or revealing the difficulty of relying on history to affirm the legitimacy of his action. The references in 1.2 to Henry's "mighty ancestors" who fought the French, capped by Ely's ringing reassurance that "You are their heir, you sit upon their throne" (1.2.117) would have struck a discordant note with Shakespeare's audience, familiarized as it was with Henry's own history (through Shakespeare's works as well as others'). Henry was decidedly not the "heir" of Edward the Black Prince, but the son of the man who deposed the Black Prince's rightful heir. The point was subtly underscored by Canterbury's citation of usurpers as legitimate "ancestors" (historical precedents) for the heir of a usurper (1.2.33-95). Henry's doubtful dynastic position is touched on again when Cambridge acknowledges that "the gold of France did not seduce" him (2.2.155), a reference to his own dynastic ambitions, which rested on the claim of his wife that was superior to Henry's. Any defence Henry would have had to her title based on her gender was barred by the very argument Henry relied on to establish his own right to France. That is, the same claim Henry made to justify his title to the French throne undermined his claim to the English one. (See Goddard [note 16], 222, and Karl P. Wentersdorf, "The Conspiracy of Silence in Henry V," Shakespeare Quarterly 27 [1976]: 264-87. There is an additional problem of citing history as a precedent to justify a later course of action, as Henry's circle does with the Crécy campaign. Imitation is not the only relationship to be forged between the past and the present. The same history carried just as much authority for the French, but as admonition not prototype. For them Crécy was not to be emulated but corrected; history was to be reversed not repeated (compare 1.2.105-10 with 2.4.53-64).

36 Michael Billington, "A 'New Olivier' Is Taking On Henry V on the Screen," New York Times, 8 January 1989, H21; see also .

37 Branagh "adapted" the script from Shakespeare, directed, and starred as Henry.

38 The modern audience's ignorance of Lancastrian history is of course a problem for all modern productions, though Branagh does nothing to work against it. The plans to use a voice-over to provide pertinent material, as Orson Welles did in his film Chimes at Midnight (reciting passages from Holinshed's Chronicles), were dropped (Billington [note 36]. Branagh also eliminates most of the references that present history-making as a potent but controversial enterprise, including Fluellen's historical analogy in 4.7, the references to Henry's "mighty ancestors" whose purported "heir" Henry is, the French treatment of the same history, and the dispute over past Scottish invasions (1.2).

39 Branagh's screenplay emphasizes how "impressed" Montjoy is by Henry (Kenneth Branagh, William Shakespeare, Henry V, A Screen Adaptation [London: Chatto and Windus, 1989], 27, 75, and 100). To underscore the Herald's favorable assessment, Branagh rewrites another Frenchman's ironic lines before battle—"That island of England breeds very valiant creatures: their mastiffs are of unmatchable courage" (3.7.140-42)—excising the reference to English dogs and along with it the sarcasm. Instead, he has the Herald deliver the remaining line as a serious evaluation of the English, one that, in Branagh's words, has "a strange power" because Montjoy knows the English (3.7.78). In Shakespeare Montjoy is not even in the scene.

40 The excision of virtually all of the prelates' discussion of Henry's miraculous change (and the causes for it) from 1.1.25-53 and 60-69 helps keep these questions at bay.

41 See, for example, Alvin B. Kernan, '"The Henriad': Shakespeare's Major History Plays," William Shakespeare: Histories and Poems, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), 211-43, and Anne Barton, "The King Disguised: The Two Bodies of Henry V," William Shakespeare's Henry V (note 33), 5-20. Peter S. Donaldson, "Taking on Shakespeare: Kenneth Branagh's Henry V" Shakespeare Quarterly 4,2 (1991): 68,61.

42 Billington (note 36), H18, H21.

43 Traversi (note 27), 166.

44 Kernan (note 41), 243.

45 Nightingale (note 27), 18. Branagh's phrase "moral gravitas" is quoted in Players of Shakespeare 2, ed. Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), 100.

46 This is how Branagh handles the execution of Bardolph. Kenneth S. Rothwell cites this scene in the movie as showing that Henry can "subordinate his own inclinations to a higher sense of duty" ("Kenneth Branagh's Henry V: The Gilt [Guilt] in the Crown Re-Examined," Comparative Drama 24 [1990]: 175).

47 Donaldson (note 41), 61.

48 See, Traversi (note 27), 9, and 166-98.

49 John Simon, "Swords and Bullets," National Review, 19 March 1990, 57.

50 Edward Barnes, "Holding the Line," Life, October, 1990, 25.

51 Stuart Klawans, Nation, 11 December 1989, 725. Just how politically potent the painful character of this knowledge can be is suggested by President Bush's recounting to the Convention of Southern Baptists how he cried about starting the war. The audience responded to his emotional retelling of this event "with a prolonged standing ovation" ("Baptists See Bush Shed Tears," Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1991.

52 Tom O'Brien, "Heroism Without Glamour," Commonweal, 23 February 1990, 116; Vincent Canby, "A Down-to-Earth 'Henry V Discards Spectacle and Pomp," New York Times, 8 November 1989, sec. 2, 19; Stanley Kauffman, "Claiming the Throne," New Republic, 4 December 1989, 28; and Pauline Kael, New Yorker, 27 November 1989, 105.

53 Kael (note 52) believes Branagh was "trying to make it into an antiwar film" (105), and H. M. Geduld believes he succeeded, calling it "a strong anti-war statement" (Humanist, July/August 1990, 43).

54 James L. Calderwood, Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: Richard II to Henry V (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979), 155.

55 O'Brien (note 52), 116. While the hymn, "Non Nobis Domine" (from the first verse of Psalm 115: "Not unto us, O Lord … but unto thy name give glory"), accords God the credit for the victory, the unwaveringly central position of Henry in this lengthy shot diverts it to him.

56 Presumably he knew at some point, which makes his failure to ever mention it (in the blush of victory the boys are completely forgotten in the roll call of the dead) all the more significant: it does not seem to have been important to him.

57 Klawans (note 51), 726.

58 This phrase as well as some of the ideas in this section are drawn from vincent P. Pecora's excellent talk at the 1990 MLA convention, "Conrad's Heart of Darkness: Who Speaks For Whom?" (forthcoming in Conradiana).

59 A similar effect was utilized in the Gulf War by demonizing Iraq's leader as a new Hitler, the symbol of unfathomable and irredeemable evil, an analogy so fixed in conventional wisdom that the New Republic could doctor a cover photo of Saddam Hussein to look more like Hitler without informing its readers (EXTRA!, November-December 1990, 3). Challenging the analogy was hazardous. One journalist, Warren Hinckle of the San Francisco Examiner, was forced to take an involuntary leave of absence for doing just that in a column entitled, "If Saddam is Hitler, Then Bush is Tojo" (EXTRA!, May 1991, 15).

60 In his essay "Killing Civilians" George Orwell attacks the effort to do so: "War is of its nature barbarous, it is better to admit that. If we see ourselves as the savages we are, some improvement is possible, or at least thinkable" (reprinted in Current Issues and Enduring Questions: Methods and Models of Argument, ed. Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau [Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1990], 103). The political dynamics of the civilian/combatant distinction were played out in 1988 when the U.S. Navy destroyed an Iranian airliner, creating a serious public relations problem for the government that in 1983 had denounced the Soviet Union for the identical act (see Seymour M. Hersh, "The Target Is Destroyed": What Really Happened to Flight 007 and What America Knew About It [New York: Random House, 1986]. In his defense of the official U.S. position then Vice-President and presidential candidate George Bush declared to the U.N. that the U.S. had "never willfully acted to endanger innocent civilians" (New York Times, 15 July 1988, A8). The political pressure the civilian/combatant distinction exerts is revealed in the desperate lengths to which his statement goes to immunize the U.S.: a misreading of history that is appallingly breathtaking in its scope.

61 Hazlitt (note 1), 158.

62 While he refers to this development as "new," Henry knew at the outset of the scene that the French still held their place on the battlefield (4.6.2).

63 Though trying to justify the king, Gower's logic of reprisal backfires. By linking the two acts he tacitly equates them, putting Henry's in the same category of slaughter as the boys', thereby extending Fluellen's condemnation of the latter to the king's own action: '"Tis expressly against the law of arms. 'Tis as arrant a piece of knavery … as can be offert" (4.7.1-3). The discordance of Gower's inapt praise for Henry at his cruelest (a "gallant king!") only highlights the king's culpability.

64 The barbarity of these orders is intensified by the presence on stage in both instances of the defenseless French prisoners themselves. It is possible their murder was acted out before the audience's eyes.

65 This episode gives a more ominous meaning to the statement by Henry's father that "nothing can seem foul to those that win" (I Henry IV 5.1.8).

66 The passage provides support for Jonathan Goldberg's argument that the perception of homosexual contact in Elizabethan England was considerably more complex than the denunciations would lead a modern reader to believe; that, in fact, a careful reading of important Renaissance texts shows a much more frank acknowledgment and even affirmation of homoerotic desire and conduct (Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities [Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1992]).

67 Goldberg (note 66), 163. See his incisive discussion of Marlowe's Edward II (114-26).

68 Branagh enthusiastically celebrated the homosocial element in the play: "There's tremendous adrenaline, tremendous bonding, tremendous camaraderie" (Nightingale [note 27], 18).

69 The Archbishop registers the scandal of Henry's companions when he describes them as "unletter'd" and "rude," part of the "popularity" (1.1.55, 59).

70 On the importance of combat to the cult of chivalry see Malcolm Vale, War and Chivalry (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1981) and Richard C. McCoy, The Rites of Knighthood (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1989).

71 Goldberg (note 66), 137. Goldberg points out that "effeminacy was more easily associated with, and was a charge more often made about, men who displayed excessive attention to women than taken as an indication of same sex attraction" (111).

72 Quoted in Goldberg, 133. Sir John Smythe's criticism of the Egyptians sums up his view of failed empires: it was "because [they] were grown effeminate, without any orders and exercises military [that] they came to be … subdued and conquered" (Certain Discourses Military, ed. J. R. Hale [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1964], 8). Thomas Nashe regarded the record of military exploits provided by history plays as "a sharp[] reproofe to these degenerate effeminate dayes of ours" (Nashe [note 20], 87).

73 See Rackin (note 17), 167-68. Alan Sinfield traces how masculinity serves as an organizing principle of royal power in the play (Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1992], 127-37).

74 The label itself situates the scene in the genre of romantic love, displacing the political dynamics at its heart.

75 The verbs used to describe courtship here—"enforces" (301) and "handling" (310)—apply the coercive economy of martial masculine culture to this heterosexual encounter. What Goldberg (note 66) says of Hotspur applies to the betrothal: "[T]his is the masculinity founded in the exchange of women that solidifies ties between men" (167).

76 Christopher Pye sees the scene, and the play itself, as "lay[ing] bare the erotic contradictions underlying power" and as such "a reflection of the single, overriding, contradiction of England's political condition in the era—the fact of the female prince" (The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the Politics of Spectacle [New York: Routledge, 1990], 33).

77 Robert Jay Lifton, Home From the War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 44. The phrase "Saving manhood" is taken from 4.8.33-34.

78 Richard Corliss calls it a "brutal fellowship of death" (Time, 13 November 1989, 120).

79 On the French Herald's last visit in the film, just after Henry discovers the dead boys, Henry's response starts as a physical assault but ends in something much closer to an embrace, replicating the progression of the battle as a whole.

Source: '"When Blood is Their Argument': Class, Characters, and Historymaking in Shakespeare's and Branagh's Henry V" in ELH, Vol. 61, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 27-52.