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The Mistaken and Apologetic Chorus:  Shakespearean Faultlines in Henry V
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  23 Sep 2008

The chorus, in Henry V, performs two main functions:  it frames the play's story, skewing its depictions in more patriotic light than they deserve, and it offers apology for the play's staging, compression of time, and ultimate inadequacy to its subject.  The junctures between the chorus's interpretation of events and the play itself are easier to note, and we may seek to understand them as ironic, even as anti-patriotic, revealing the junctures inherent in patriotic propaganda.  But the chorus's apologies for the play are well-deserved, and the play at times does not undercut the chorus's patriotic vision but rather affirms it in insidious ways.  The chorus's statements thus parsed, Henry V becomes a play at odds with itself -- but not only in presenting patriotic anti-patriotism (or vice versa).  Indeed, the junctures revealed through the chorus demonstrate nothing less than a faulty play of inconsistent vision.

Perhaps the most obvious way in which the chorus's statements are undercut through its rhetoric about Henry himself. The chorus tells us that Henry is "the mirror of all Christian kings" (2.0.6). An act and a half later, this "mirror of all Christian kings" speaks pious hymns to the besieged city of Harfleur:

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the ... soldier, ...
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
... moving like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and your flowering infants. (3.3.10-14)

Apt speech for "the mirror of all Christian kings." But Henry has more hymns to sing:
What is 't to me, ...
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation? (3.3.19-21)
Not convinced of Harfleur's conversion, our crusading king sings the most devout vesper:
... in a moment look to see
The ... bloody soldier ...
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters,
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers ... howl[...]. (3.3.33-39)

This Christian king explicitly states that he will side with "impious war, / Arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends" (3.3.15-16) and hat his men will act as "Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen" (3.3.41) - who, after all, attempted to kill the infant Jesus. And, of course, this "mirror of all Christian kings," hearing that the battle of Agincourt may be in jeopardy, simply announces, "The French have reinforced their scattered men. / Then every soldier kiss his prisoners! / Give the word through" (4.6.36-38). In these words and the war crime they represent (likely appalling even more in Shakespeare's or Henry's time of ransom for nobles than our own time of total war), lies Henry's damnation.

The chorus seems wrong about other, perhaps more factual matters as well. Having just shown the French ambassadors' defiance of Henry, complete with delivering tennis balls as a "tun of treasure" (1.2.255), the chorus tells us that the French "Shake in their fear" (2.0.14). The chorus tells us that "all the youth of England are on fire" (2.0.1) for Henry, a view of events strongly at odds with the scenes of commoners. Similarly, the chorus tells us of universal praise for pious Henry's victory (5.0), only to present, in the very next scene, Pistol's resolve to be a "cutpurse" (5.1.85). The chorus's description of a "cheerful" (4.0.40) Henry on the eve of Agincourt, blessing with "largess universal like the sun" (4.0.43), giving "to everyone" (4.0.44) "A little touch of Harry in the night" (4.0.47), contrasts strongly with the presentation of Henry's inner turmoil and visitation of his men only in disguise (4.1).

One response to such incongruities would be to claim that they are intentional on Shakespeare's part, suggesting a dissection of such nationalistic rhetoric, even of the way history is recorded itself. But the play presents other evidence that shows ferocious nationalistic intent on Shakespeare's part. Take the presentation of the French for example. King Charles is the model of passivity and the Dauphin is an effete poet. While the scenes with the French can be read in various ways, the French hardly receive kind treatment. On the eve of the battle of Agincourt, while Henry V in disguise nervously observes his troops and discusses deep issues, Shakespeare shows us a scene of frivolous French caricatures (3.7). France, overall, is depicted as female and in need of masculine English mastery; as the Dauphin puts it, "Our madams mock at us and plainly say / Our mettle is bred out, and they will give / Their bodies to the lust of English youth" (3.5.28-30). Those French women, married or not, just can't resist those rough English men. To put these words in a French mouth can only signify Shakespeare's own culpability in presenting propaganda of the worst sort. Even Katharine is mostly used for comic relief, as the audience hears her stumbling English and confusion of basic vocabulary for "les mots de son mauvais" (3.4.51).

Similarly, the chorus characterizes the rebels against Henry as "treacherous crowns" and "corrupted men" (2.0.22), whose motivation is "the gilt of France" (2.0.26). Such a characterization seems at odds with Shakespeare's ability to paint touching portraits of complex humanity even in apparent villains. But when we see the rebels, they confirm the chorus's description and even seem glad to be discovered because they are aware of the evilness of their plans. Nowhere is it mentioned, either by the chorus or the rebels, that one of them, Richard the Earl of Cambridge, was a rival to the throne. The rebels fail to mention that Henry V gets his legitimacy of origin through a usurper and regicide, or that Richard's claim descends through Mortimer to the martyred Richard II. Shakespeare is thus complicit with the chorus, presenting as objective fact what could otherwise only seem the chorus's spin doctoring - even occluding in choral complicity those facts that would undermine a nationalistic reading.

The chorus's other repeated line of commentary concerns not the characters but the staging of the play itself. The chorus begins with defensiveness over the inadequacy of the staging, as if confirming Ben Jonson's brilliantly clever parodic description of Shakespeare's plays, in which a few actors represent armies, the setting repeatedly jumps disparately in the blink of an eye, and time is mercilessly compressed. The chorus thus asks, "Can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France?" (Prologue.11-12). It admits to "Turning th' accomplishment of many years / Into an hourglass" (Prologue.30-31). Following Agincourt, the chorus apologizes for its radical compression of history:

I humbly ... admit th' excuse
Of time, of numbers, and due course of things,
Which cannot be in their huge and proper life
Be here presented. (5.0.3-6)

The chorus quickly summarizes a number of events (in 3.0 and 5.0), seeming too much like a film with a bankrupt budget. The chorus condemns the play itself, claiming that staging Agincourt with "four or five most vile and ragged foils, / Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous" (4.0.50-51) is a "disgrace" (4.0.49).

These choral critiques of the play itself, particularly in terms of Shakespeare's liberties with time, space, and scenes involving multitudes, admit to using deception to compensate for inadequacy. In order to explain how viewers will have to use their imagination to make a few men represent armies, the chorus utilizes a metaphor not of imaginative exaggeration but corrupt deceit:

... Since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
... let us, ciphers to this great account [the story],
On your imaginary forces work. (Prologue.15-18)

In other words, the players are like crooked accountants. It may be anachronistic to suggest that the line, "'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings" (Prologue.28), suggests that Shakespeare's Henry V is like unto "The Emperor's New Clothes," but it would be nonetheless insightful. Of course, these are concerns with representation, and thus may be read as enhancing the view that the chorus undermines its own patriotism -- except that the play also confirms such nationalistic rhetoric in the most vile and racist ways. The result is a play that is at odds with itself, though decidedly not in carefully orchestrated ways.

One instance involves a choral mistake of the kind made in its patriotic mis-characterizations but connected to the staging itself. The chorus describes the movement of the drama to "Southampton" (2.0.30):

... the scene
Is now transported, gentles, to Southampton.
There is the playhouse now, there must you sit,
And thence to France shall we convey you safe,
And bring you back, charming the narrow seas
To give you gentle pass; for, if we may,
We'll not offend one stomach with our play.
But, till the King come forth, and not till then,
Unto Southampton do we shift our scene. (2.0.34-42)

The chorus having invoked Southampton thrice, the next scene begins in London and features not the king and the rebels but the Eastcheap regulars. We might be inclined to see this as Shakespeare implying that the propagandistic version of events, represented by the chorus, is unaware of the lives of commoners. But Shakespeare has Pistol, upon hearing his wife's death, call her Doll instead of Nell (5.1.80) - an unfortunate error and one scholars believe may have been caused by Shakespeare revising the play and excising Falstaff, simply giving his lines to Pistol. This suggests that Shakespeare's revisions of the play have not been smooth and raises the possibility that the 2.1 was written later, or moved from another location in the play (the Southampton scene is now 2.2), and that the chorus's false notation of 2.1's setting was simply not corrected any more than the reference to Doll Tearsheet was corrected.

Mistakes have resonance too, especially when such themes as staging (or representation) are invoked, but when an author demonstrates a lack of control over his work, we cannot look too deeply into that resonance without parodying ourselves. In the context of talking of the play's staging, the chorus tells the audience to "sit and see, / Minding true things by what their mockeries be" (4.0.52-53). By any strict reading, these "mockeries" are those of the play, which are considerable in ways besides the acting. Reading "true things" into "mockeries" is one thing when one means "sketchy representation" by "mockeries" - and another when the play itself contains "mockeries," outright errors. As we do the work in imagining what the chorus tells us to imagine and what is beyond the theatre's ability to stage, so we do the work of writing this play for Shakespeare, patching up the faultlines opened by its inconsistency, turning oxymoron to rich paradox. The situation is all too much like when the chorus instructs us to "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth" (Prologue.26-27) - in other words, to take Shakespeare's poetic descriptions and expand on them, to vaunt them higher than he has reached. If we are to do justice to Shakespeare, we ought not to cover up his errors and inconsistencies - his real "mockeries" - but rather honestly admit, when appropriate, when his work demonstrates real failure, even beside glorious and stirring passages. Henry V distinctly suffers from lack of revision and from inconsistent vision, leaving an apologetic chorus that guides us through a fractured text that sits at odds not only with the chorus but with itself.

There is more truth than critics, and perhaps Shakespeare himself, would like to admit in the chorus's epilogue:

Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
            Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
            Mangling by starts the full course of their glory. (Epilogue.1-4)
The evidence suggests that Shakespeare was indeed bending under the weight of his task and that he did mangle the play through stops and starts. Shakespeare's apology is not (just) false modesty:  it is well-warranted.1


This essay was first made available online on 29 June 2001. Citations to Shakespeare in this essay come from the Bevington edition of Shakespeare's complete works.
1 Yet, for all of this, I would still maintain Henry V to be an excellent play. [BACK]

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Essays on Literature by Julian Darius:
On "Renaissance" (Part 1)
On "Renaissance" (Part 2)
Implications of Dante’s Placing of Ulysses in Hell
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 1)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 2)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 3)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 4)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 5)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 6)
Pulling the Cheese from the Mousetrap:  Donne’s “The Bait” as (Anti-)Pornographic Narrative Fantasy
The Mistaken and Apologetic Chorus:  Shakespearean Faultlines in Henry V
The Old Conventional Metamorphosis:  Transvestitism in The Taming of the Shrew and Shakespeare
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 1)
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 2)
"W - a - l - d - e - n," a large number of words by "T - h - o - r - e - a - u"
And When We Long, We Long as Gatsby