The Sentimentalizing of Communitas in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2544

Patricia P. Salomon, University of Findley

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In Henry V, Shakespeare's protagonist takes great pains in the well-known Crispin's Day speech to establish the closest possible rapport with his troops at Agin-court, a communitas in which his comrades of every social rank achieve a privileged moment of parity with the King himself:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.

A close reading of the play, however, shows that until this moment of quasi-liturgical bonding, the Boar's Head Tavern subplot characters—Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym—were in every way inimical to the cause of Henry and his truly loyal "band of brothers." This contrast between Shakespeare's subplot characters and Henry's troops is fully analyzed in Brownell Salomon's "Thematic Contraries and the Dramaturgy of Henry V," [Shakespeare Quarterly 31, 1980] which documents how all scenes in the play are connected by a single conceptual framework: private cause versus public good. Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym, who go to France for their own personal gain, are equated with all other characters who act out of similarly "private" or selfish motives: Canterbury and Ely, altogether moral churchmen who, not incidentally, serve their own interest by contributing to Henry's war chest in order to avoid a church tax; Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey, traitors who have sold out their king and country for French gilt; the Dauphin, who puts private enmity and spite above public policy (2.4.127-29); and the French nobles in general, whom their king motivates by appealing to aristocratic self-esteem instead of patriotic zeal (3.5.38-47). As for Pistol and his cronies, Richard Levin, in The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama [1971], demonstrates that they are clown-foils whose function in the play is "to contrast with, and so render still more admirable, the exploits of the 'mirror of all Christian kings'" (116).

But, just as Shakespeare took broad liberties with medieval history to work these subsidiary character-creations into his rendition of Henry V for the Elizabethan audience, Kenneth Branagh remolds the same Shakespearean characters for his later twentieth-century audience. I hope to show that, by means of additions, editorial omissions, and extra-textual gestures, Branagh both minimizes and sentimentalizes the anti-social behavior of the Boar's Head Tavern characters. What emerges is a distinctly anachronistic, twentieth-century social egalitarian perspective that undermines their primary function in Shakespeare's play, which is to demonstrate how selfish, self-serving opportunism runs counter to the civil virtues that King Henry's brotherly communitas would achieve.

The most notable additions Branagh makes to Henry V involving the subplot characters are three flashback episodes. The first takes place at the end of the scene introducing the Boar's Head Tavern crew. The Boar's Head itself is dark and filthy, and its inhabitants are unwashed and suffer from disorders of the teeth and skin. Bardolph scavenges for food and scuffles with a cat for the previous night's leftovers while Nym recovers from a hangover. Pistol enters, flirting and laughing with Nell, but the mood soon changes when the Boy comes down to relate the seriousness of Falstaff's illness. Melancholy comes over these characters as the film cuts to a closeup of Falstaff's face. The camera returns to a dewy-eyed Pistol who looks longingly into space. He remembers Falstaff's voice. The camera cuts to Falstaff at his revels. When the young Prince Hal enters, Falstaff runs to embrace him, saying, in words transposed from 1 Henry IV:

If sack and sugar be a fault, then God help the wicked. If to be old and merry is a sin, if to be fat is to be hated … But no, my good lord, when thou art King, banish Pistol, banish Bardolph, banish Nym, but sweet Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry's company, banish plump Jack and banish all the world.

["Henry V" by William Shakespeare: A Screen Adaptation by Kenneth Branagh, London: Chatto & Windus, 1989, p. 35]

In a voice-over, Henry replies, "I do. I will." As though he has heard Henry's answer, Falstaff's face grows sad, and he adds: "But we have heard the chimes of midnight, Master Harry. Jesus, the days that we have seen." Again in voice-over, Henry responds, using the words spoken in 2 Henry IV 5.5: "I know thee not, old man." At this point, the episode intervenes in which the traitors—Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey—are condemned to death, after which we return to the Boar's Head to learn of Falstaff's death. A profile of the dead Falstaff appears, and Nell, drained of emotion, leans over him. Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, Nell, and the Boy, grieved and teary-eyed, recall Falstaff and his witticisms and console one another.

It is apparent from these scenes that these are characters who deserve our empathy. Perhaps they drink a little too much to forget their social deprivation; perhaps they wake at the Boar's Head because they have nowhere else to go. The way Branagh's tavern crew mourn the death of their friend humanizes and sentimentalizes them. Even Patrick Doyle's highly emotive music supports the sentimental treatment of these characters. In fact, the same tune that plays for Henry's other troops plays for Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym as they take leave of Nell to join Henry in South-hampton.

The second flashback, Henry's this time, takes place when Bardolph is about to be hanged for stealing the pax, a sequence that is reported rather than depicted in Shakespeare.1 As the hoist is effected, the camera cuts to the Boar's Head, where Bardolph and Falstaff are engaged in a drinking contest. At a crucial moment, Bardolph digs Falstaff in the ribs, causing him to spill his drink. Bardolph teasingly says to Harry, "Do not, when thou art king, hang a thief." "No, thou shalt," Henry replies. The camera cuts back to Henry's face. Tears well up in his eyes as he painfully gives the order for Bardolph's execution. In an apologetic, raspy voice rather than a firm, decisive one, Henry reminds his men, "We would have all such offenders so cut off.… " Tears run down Henry's cheeks. It is as though Henry has the flashback in order to reassure himself that Bardolph, not he, is responsible for his own death. Bardolph knew the consequences, ignored them, and broke the law. Henry's situation is a difficult one: he can't ignore an infraction of discipline just because a friend committed it. At the beginning of this scene, Pistol had tearfully begged Fluellen to intercede on Bardolph's behalf and became visibly upset at Fluellen's negative response. Framing the execution with Pistol's and Henry's reactions to it makes it apparent that Bardolph is as much a personal loss to Henry as he is to Pistol. Thus Branagh's every representation of Henry's old friends tends to be empathically charged with nostalgia or pathos, whereas their anti-social qualities are softened or deleted (e.g., Pistol's opportunism: "profits will accrue," 2.1.115).

The third and final flashback is again Henry's and takes place towards the end of the film when Burgundy gives an account of how France has suffered because of the war. A montage of faces appears on the screen as Henry thinks back to all he has lost: his fallen troops, York, the Boy, Nell, Nym, Bardolph, Scroop, and Falstaff. All losses—common soldiers, men of rank, his Boar's Head friends, and even the traitors—are equally felt.

In the introduction to the published but now out-of-print screenplay, Branagh states that he includes these flashbacks because

It was important for an audience that might have no previous knowledge of the Henry IV plays to have an idea of the background to Henry V, and I wanted to achieve the greatest possible impact from Mistress Quickly's speech reporting the death of Falstaff, a character that the audience would not otherwise have encountered.

I constructed this brief flashback from three separate scenes in the Henry IV plays. My intention was to give, in miniature, a sense of Falstaff's place among the surviving members of the Boar's Head crew and to make clear his former relationship and estrangement from the young monarch. Both this scene and the flashback during Bardolph's on-screen execution help to illustrate the young king's intense isolation and his difficulty in rejecting his former tavern life. (Branagh 12)

Branagh's final words, "difficulty in rejecting his former tavern life," are significant. Whereas Shakespeare clearly indicates that that rejection was a fait accompli at the end of 2 Henry IV (cf. also Henry V 1.1.24f), Branagh manufactures "difficulty" by problematizing Henry's already demonstrated maturity, discipline, and social responsibility. As we saw in the interpolated scene of Bardolph's hanging, Branagh's Henry is sentimentalized, tearily insecure, and "vulnerable" in the latest pop-psychological fashion. Henry will know "intense isolation," but he does this later, in his "ceremony" soliloquy (4.1).

In addition to the flashbacks, Branagh alters Shakespeare at times by dramatizing events merely reported in the play, as he does with Bardolph's execution. Shakespeare only briefly mentions that Nym, as well as Bardolph, has been hanged for stealing. Branagh, however, shows Nym on-screen, being stabbed in the back and having his neck broken during the battle while he is is taking a purse off a dead French soldier.2 Branagh here provides another invented image of gratuitous emotionality in contravention of Shakespeare's purposes in the subplot: upon finding Nym's dead body, Pistol grieves and weeps as he cradles it in his arms.

Another instance of Branagh's expanding a Shakespearean cue into a full-blown sequence occurs after the battle, when Henry proclaims: "Come, go we in procession to the village; …/ Do we all holy rites: / Let there be sung 'Non nobis' and 'Te Deum'" (4.8.115, 124-25). Covered with dried blood and mud, Henry carries the body of the Boy across the battlefield in an extended, long-take tracking shot that lasts a full four minutes.3 With this cinematic decision, Branagh surely verges over the line between heart-tugging pathos and sheer bathos. (Mightn't Henry more appropriately have carried a hand-sized cross in one hand and his sword in the other for this shot?) As the single voice intoning "Non nobis, Domine" slowly grows into a full chorus and orchestra, we see Pistol among the carnage still holding and weeping over Nym, as other soldiers, some also carrying the dead, follow Henry's path. When Henry finally reaches the cart containing Agincourt's losses, he lovingly places the Boy inside it and kisses him farewell. It is a scene to melt our hearts. Contributing to the impact of this scene is, once more, Doyle's musical score. As Chris Fitter observes [in "A Tale of Two Branaghs: Henry V, Ideology; and the Mekong Agincourt," in Shakespeare Left and Right, edited by Ivo Kamps, 1991], "Deftly ambiguated by its director's hand, instantaneous intelligibility and firmly manipulated empathy are secured by supervening music-over at almost every scene, to aid a pulsing speech or moisten a baffled eye" (273). Social egalitarianism could scarcely be more hyper-emotionalized than by this Branaghian interpolation.

Another aspect of Branagh's sanitizing treatment of the subplot characters is their on-screen placement with Henry and his troops. During Henry's "Once more unto the breach" oration, Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym are right up front cheering him on, crying "God for Harry, England, and Saint George!" Branagh briefly shows Fluellen having to compel these craven hypocrites toward the breach ("you dogs! Avaunt you cullions!" 57), but he excises all verbal references to their thievery and cowardice and the Boy's devastating repudiation of "Their villainy" (3.2.1-55). More significant, when Henry delivers his Crispin's Day speech before Agincourt, it is Nym who assists Henry onto his plat-form-cart, and, again, Pistol and Nym are right there to cheer their King. These examples give the false impression that the Boar's Head characters are as much contributing members of Henry's community as anyone else, not simply during the Battle of Agincourt but throughout the entire film.

Several deletions from Shakespeare's text also soften, if not white-wash altogether, the anti-communitas implications of Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym. In the introduction to his screenplay, Branagh discusses the cuts he made in order to keep his film commercial length. He says of the Boar's Head scenes:

My own experience of cinema-going convinced me that two hours was the maximum span of concentration that could be expected from an audience for a film of this kind. In any case, the cuts dictated themselves. The more tortuous aspects of the Fluellen/Pistol antagonism, culminating in the resoundingly unfunny leek scene, were the first to go. (Branagh 11)

Accordingly, two scenes which vividly depreciate Pistol are eliminated: first, his self-serving capture of the French soldier le Fer, for whom he demands a ransom of 200 crowns (4.4); and, second, his humiliating confrontation with Fluellen and Gower (virtually the entirety of 5.1), in which Pistol is forced to eat the leek they use to knock him over the head. This farcical scene, which, Branagh to the contrary notwithstanding, can be resoundingly funny in performance, dramatizes tellingly what the filmmaker's own egalitarian tolerance makes him loath to reveal: that Fluellen and Gower cannot allow that villainous social pariah Pistol ("You are a counterfeit cowardly knave") to share their company ("Fare ye well"). In its stead, Branagh shows us Fluellen and Henry embrace after the battle in a laughing, tearful bearhug (extra-textual, of course) and talk sweetly and sentimentally about the importance of the leek as a Welsh symbol and their pride in their Welsh blood (4.7).

The camera cuts to a broken Pistol leaning against a tree, contemplating his losses and empty future. His wife and all his friends are dead. Although he says he will turn cutpurse, we cannot deny him sympathy because he is obviously pained, and being a cutpurse is no different from his past behavior. Ironically, it was Pistol himself (in a line pointedly deleted by Branagh) who told us that his purpose in going to France was not to do his patriotic duty but rather, "like horseleeches, my boys, / To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck!" (2.3.56-57).

Peter Donaldson, in "Taking on Shakespeare: Kenneth Branagh's Henry V" [Shakespeare Quarterly 42, 1991] attributes the treatment of these characters in Branagh's film to his own Irish working-class background: "Branagh's Irish working-class identity shows through his stage English royal persona at strategic moments, giving depth to the king's identification with the common soldiers, lending credence to his claim to be a work-a-day, plain-style king" (68). Whatever the reasons for Branagh's rethinking these characters, the result of it skews Shakespeare's overall structuring of the play. These characters no longer form a contrast to Henry and his loyal "band"; they actually belong to Henry's community, not only at the Battle of Agin-court, where Henry achieves communitas with his men, but throughout the film.


1 Hanging Bardolph directly before the eyes of the king is an idea borrowed from Adrian Noble's 1984 Stratford-upon-Avon production, in which Branagh also played Henry V.

2 Later, following the battle, other men and women are also seen pillaging the corpses, plainly diminishing the criminality of Nym's behavior.

3 In Olivier's Henry V, it is Fluellen who merely holds the body of the Boy in his arms. But Branagh may well have seen the extant publicity still photo showing Olivier's King Henry holding the Boy.

Source: "The Sentimentalizing of Communitas in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V," in Shakespeare Bulletin, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 35-6.

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