Shakespeare’s Henry V: The common man’s role in history, war and politics

The selected passage is taken from the very beginning of Act 2 of Henry V. It is directly after Henry V has declared war on France, and ends as Nym and Ancient Pistol draw irons. The Chorus invokes an enthusiastic response to the story’s progression, encouraging and guiding the audience’s emotional response to the events that have just occurred. The grandeur of the events the Chorus describes is juxtaposed heavily in the lower-class drama that surrounds the Boar’s Head characters, in both content and language use. Though they seem different worlds, with the Chorus using verse in iambic pentameter, and the Boar’s Head characters using prose that is often vulgar – we shouldn’t think of them as separate worlds but rather that they are intertwined which will be explored in this analysis.

The powerful introductions to each Act by the Chorus contain some of the most memorable lines from Henry V, such as “O for a muse of fire…” (I. prologue. 1) and “A city on th’inconstant billows dancing” (III. prologue. 1) His enthusiasm is seen in the prologue, as he invokes an image of excitement and of movement, “Now all the youth of England are on fire” (II. prologue. 1) In a play that contains the giant historical proportions which we find in Henry V, a chorus is a useful theatrical device to encapsulate some of the fastidious parts of the play, for example, when he brings the audience up to speed on the “three corrupted men” and effectively driving forward the plot. This fact is even acknowledged by the Chorus as he refers to “playhouse”, “Th’ abuse of distance, force perforce a play” (II. Prologue. 32) and “Unto Southampton do we shift our scene” (II. Prologue. 42) constantly aware that he is within a play and reminding the audience that this play will require a great amount of imagination “And let us, ciphers to this great account, / On your imaginary forces work”(I. i. 17-18). In the process of this encapsulation of events the use of generalisations are necessary, which Shakespeare takes to the extreme in his heavily contrasting language that seems to contain everything between heaven and hell, for example: “children kind and natural” (19)  and “nest of hollow bosoms” (21); “grace of kings” (28) and “hell and treason” (29) and “gilt” against “guilt” (26). There is a sense with his summarisations that Shakespeare wrote the Chorus to appeal particularly to the groundlings, where the motivations of the traitors are put down to greed for “the gilt of France” when the actual fact is most of the conspirators have complicated political ends. With this in mind, I would argue that the Chorus has been specifically designed for glorifying Henry as hero and as an appeal to the Tudor rulers of the era who idolised Henry V. At times the Chorus even seems to channel the immature glorification of war that was seen the previous Henriad in the fiery Hotspur – comparing soldiers to “English Mercuries” and “honour’s thought reigns solely in the breast of every man” (II. Prologue. 4).

These glorifications are anti-climatic as it quickly becomes apparent that England’s “children kind and natural” are in reality, the ever-entertaining Pistol, Nym, Bardolph, and Mistress Quickly. Within the small sphere of influence, their lives revolve there has also been traitorous betrayal, the betrayed love of Nym for Nell Quickly who has left her engagement to him for Nym, a friend and now rival lover. This juxtaposition between the high state drama that contains “a kingdom to a stage, princes to act,” (I. prologue. 3) with the Boar’s Head is emphasised by the unique style of dialogue spoken by the characters of the later. The most evident is Pistol’s dialogue – who, as his name alludes, has bombastic replies and explosive lines such those he says to Nym, “Base tyke, call’st thou me host? Now by this hand I swear I scorn the term, nor shall my Nell keep lodgers.” (II. i. 26-27). Pistol is overbearing with his words, whereas Nym speaks tersely, “Pish” (II. i. 35) he replies crudely to Pistol. His use of few words is due to his belief that “men of few words are the best men” (III. Iii. 31) though as the Boy asserts, “his few bad words are matched with as few good deeds” (III. iii. 33). Though opposite in expression, Pistol they are alike in nature as they both misuse words in their representation of each other – Pistol “hath a killing tongue and a quiet sword” (III. iii. 29). Mistress Quickly – whose name could be misheard as the suggestive term ‘quick lay’ – also misuses words through malapropisms that are usually rich with innuendo, such as when she says “If he be not hewn now we shall see willful adultery and murder committed” (III. iii. 33) meaning to say assaultery and unintentionally using a humorous tautological statement – but these misrepresentations by Nell are at least unintentional.

The misrepresentations of Nym and Pistol can be seen as parallels to the deceit used by the Chorus and also by Henry V himself. Prince Hal switched between prose and verse in Henry IV, representing his ability to traverse between the high state drama of his father and Hotspur; and the debauchery of Falstaff and his cronies. With this in mind, it is clear that the detour before South Hampton is characteristic of Shakespeare’s historic plays, particularly the Henriad, which features a close examination of the universal aspects of politics, power, and war – he does not forget the average individual. Emblematic of his unique brand of humanism Shakespeare reserves a unique place in his retelling of history for the typical man or woman amongst the princes and monarchs – though I admit at certain times Shakespeare’s princes can even eclipse their own plays and I suppose “that is the humour of it.”

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