“The gates of mercy shall be all shut up”

Henry V, Act 3, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

So, next on my holiday Shakespeare-fest was going to a talk at the Globe by Jamie Parker, who, if you read this often, you’ll remember was King Henry V in the production I saw there earlier this year. He also played Prince Hal in the Globe’s 2010 production of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and that role, the biggest role in the canon in fact (counting all three plays), is what the talk was on.

One point I found very interesting was that although Henry V has such a huge part, extremely few of his speeches are soliliquys. Parker referred to them more as ‘arias’; speeches designed for public effect, which require the actor to turn them into dialogue to keep the audience entertained and enthralled. Indeed, Henry is an overtly public figure, and a big debate surrounding him (and of course most politicians nowadays) is the question of whether he truly believes everything he says? He is the ideal picture of a chivalric king, and was designed to boost English national pride in their heritage. However, despite the lack of soliliquys, interestingly, Parker compared Henry to Hamlet, in that they both desire transcendancy; something more than simply living. In fact, one could say that in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Prince Hal is simply living; living well but not achieving anything. By Henry V he has seen Falstaff, his old drinking buddy and replacement father in a new light, and has realised that he wants something beyond the physical pleasures of life; he wants to be remembered, as Hamlet does: “And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, to tell my story.” Of course, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh have played both to great critical acclaim, so perhaps I should compare and contrast each of their versions.

The quote I’ve started this blog post with is from one of Henry’s famous speeches (although there are many) from at the gates of Harfleur. For quite a lot of Henry-fans, this speech presents a problem, in that during it, Henry is so brutal and threatening to the people and city of Harfleur that it is hard to gel with the great, chivalric hero. In the Olivier film of the play in 1944, this speech was cut almost entirely since the film was partly funded by the British government in order to boost public and soldierly morale, and so basically all of Henry’s harsher traits were intentionally omitted by Olivier when writing the screenplay (the part in which Henry sentences three traitors, including his friend Bardolph, to death was also left out). Parker pointed out that there are many things about Henry that don’t gel with modern perspectives; his ‘constrained brutality’ is hard to agree with, but also part of his appeal; Shakespeare creates a paradoxical marriage of gentleness and human brutality, and this means that some find his character irretrievably compromised by the Harfleur speech (in which he threatens to rape “your pure maidens” and have “your naked infants spitted upon pikes” – not exactly pleasant! The detail into which he goes make it hard to see as just an empty threat made to impress). Parker presented the view that particular people aren’t born to like Henry V; they are born for other plays. Just as one person can hate a particular song and another can love it, so it can be with Shakespeare’s plays. However, what is great and genius about Shakespeare (at least in my opinion) is the wealth and breadth of the subjects and characters he covered, all whilst writing with the same beautifully constructed language. This means that although you may find Henry V distasteful, considering that ten thousand of the French die yet the play ends, not dwelling on this fact, but with Henry’s wooing of Katherine of France, as a comedy would end, there will be a different play out there for you.

Right, lecture on why you should love Shakespeare over, and back onto Jamie Parker’s talk. Parker had clearly done his research on the play and pointed out the similarities between the mummers who would have performed through Stratford-upon-Avon and some of the pantomime elements of Henry V, for example, he suggested, the Chorus. Looking at the language in greater depth, there are quick changes from prose to pentameter, and Parker suggested that, whereas prose was self-consciously witty, when using verse Henry is speaking from the heart; his true self is revealed. Now, I’m not sure I’d agree with this – I’ll have to look into it some more – but it’s an interesting point to make, if perhaps slightly simplified.

Only one more day until term starts – yikes! But that means only three more days before I finally get to see Stratford-upon-Avon for myself! I’ll try to write more soon, but bye for now.

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