Henry V The Sentimentalizing of Communitas in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V
by William Shakespeare

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The Sentimentalizing of Communitas in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Patricia P. Salomon, University of Findley

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.
                                    (4.3.60-63)

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...

(The entire section is 2,544 words.)