Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Henry V: England Kicks Ass

When we were boys we dreamed of warfare.

We played guns with sticks and bats, pinecones were grenades, and death was a five-second interval of stillness on the ground, preceded by a melodramatic choreographed collapse. It was glorious fun.

I remember imagining relationships of enmity with people we didn’t know. Behind our Grandpa Smith’s house there were some older kids we called the Bad Boys. Fear of them prevented us from riding our Big Wheels around the block like the fear of folkloric trolls squatting in wait beneath rickety bridges.

And when I played youth soccer, our team was the Crusaders and our rivals were the Dragons. Their treachery and deviance on the field surely spilled over into real life. When they beat us for the Kenosha Area Soccer League championship in 1989 it was like Pearl Harbor, and my juvenile bloodlust was grand. Having enemies gave purpose to our militaristic machinations.

I wanted to be a soldier. I used to see pictures of my grandpas in their World War II uniforms and I would pray that there would be a war for me to fight in when I was old enough. To prove myself on the battlefield, to be brave in the face of danger, to conquer evil and kill mightily.

Henry V is the fulfillment of boyish dreams. The great masturbatory celebration of England’s destiny as a force for righteousness and military achievement.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,

The game’s afoot!

Follow your spirit; and upon this charge

Cry, “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!” (3:1)

Henry delivers a rousing speech that outdoes a blue-painted Mel Gibson telling his kilted fellows: “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our FREEDOM!”

Henry V tells the story of England’s great victories over France at Agincourt and Harfleur. I’ve only read to the middle of Act IV so far, but it is clear that Henry is going to meet no real resistance from the French army.

His bullying hubris begins in Act 1 when the Archbishop of Canterbury tells him that he has a claim to the French throne. And continues when the Dauphin of France warns the English King not to invade France and sends him a gift of tennis balls to silence his ambition and make fun of him. Mostly it makes King Henry V mad:

And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his

Hath turn’d his balls to gun-stones, and his soul

Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance

That shall fly with them; for many a thousand widows

Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands;

Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;

And some are yet ungotten and unborn

That shall have cause to curse the Dolphin’s scorn.

But this all lies with the will of God (1:2)

Henry V has a warmonger's habit of telling the soon-to-be victims of his army’s fury that they have brought it on themselves, as he tells the people of Harfleur:

What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause,

If your pure maidens fall into the hand

Of hot and forcing violation? (3:3)

It’s not Henry’s fault if he rapes their women, it’s the Frenchman’s fault for not surrendering.

But the play operates on two levels. It’s a pageant and a satire. Like Starship Troopers, you laugh at the military ridiculousness of Casper Van Diem’s sincere battlecry: “Kill 'em! Kill ‘em All!” before he unleashes thousands of rounds into alien bugs, but you sort of get a kick out of all the badass action sequences and the fist fight soundtracked to Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You.” It’s ridiculous and fun.

It’s not difficult to determine that there was some satiric sentiment motivating Shakespeare. In Henry IV part 2, Henry IV tells his son (who is about to become Henry V) the key to domestic tranquility:

Therefore my Harry,

Be it thy course to busy giddy minds

With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out,

May waste the memory of the former days. (Henry IV Part 2, 4:5)

Use war as a distraction, lest the people remember that the throne of England was unnaturally taken when the rightful King Richard II was deposed and beheaded by Henry IV. This is a method used by leaders all the way up until 1984:




(1984, Orwell, p. 4, 16, 26, 104)

“And at the same time, the consciousness of being at war and therefore in danger, makes the handing over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.” (1984, Orwell p. 192)

More hard evidence of this strategy's efficacy can be observed in Presidential Approval polls September 2001 – September 2003.

You can’t blame a country for trying to hold onto some hope in a dark period of its history, when all its industry seems futile against the maturing will of God. The battlefield victories are for the boys who have to dream of such things when they’re young. And when they’re older they might understand. They may learn the value of human life and be dissuaded from military glory by a simple argument, the way I was eventually dissuaded from the service by my Uncle Alfie.

Alfie served in the Air Force during Operation Desert Storm and when I told him I was considering enlisting, he said it amazed him how many people tried to get out of the service during the buildup to Desert Storm. He said: “This is what you sign up for, so if you’re not willing to fight when the time comes, even if you don’t agree with what you're fighting for, then you shouldn’t do it.”

So I didn’t.

I have mixed feelings about that decision not to don a military-issue helmet. Because every boy wants to win wars. But it’s not just winning that makes the experience vital, it’s facing the fear. It’s the humility that comes from being a soldier, a cog in a vast, historic machine. Essential, yet expendable. It’s an elusive brotherhood and a special kind of courage that no amount of study can replace.

But I do find solace in the words Shakespeare gives to the French Duke of Orleance who quips about the English having no common sense:

That they lack; for if their heads had any intellectual armor, they could never wear such heavy head-pieces. (4:1)

Or as Joshua, the computerized defense system from the 80s movie Wargames, observes about Global Thermonuclear War: “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

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