Williams’ Glove: Henry V as Shakespeare’s Challenge to Imperialism
By Clifford Stetner
The life of Henry V falls in the middle of the historical period represented in Shakespeare’s history plays, but Henry V is the climax of his history cycle project, immediately after which he began his series of great tragedies with the mythologized history of Julius Caesar and the historicized myth of Hamlet. Henry V, “the mirrour of all Christian kings” is the most mythologized of Shakespeare’s English kings, but unlike the tragedies of Julius Caesar and Richard III, its antihistorical antithesis that closes the first tetralogy, Henry V closes the second tetralogy by mythologizing history as comedy, emphasizing its cyclical trajectory, from England to France to England to France, and culminating in the wedding of England and France, closing the circle in comic connubial regeneration.
In Myth and Meaning, Claude Levi-Strauss suggests that the function of myth is to secure “the open character of history by the innumerable ways according to which mythical cells, or explanatory cells which were originally mythical, can be arranged and rearranged” and that in order to bridge the conceptual gap between myth and history, we should look for the “intermediary step” in the form of “histories…conceived as…a continuation of mythology.” While Levi-Strauss is speaking in the context of Native American oral tradition, his “intermediary step” is an apt description of Shakespeare’s history plays, and especially of Henry V, an intermediary synchronically between idealized myth and real history and diachronically between Shakespeare the historian and Shakespeare the tragedian.
The Chorus of Act I apologizes that the conditions of the real theater are inadequate to produce the majesty and grandeur of the mythological ideal Christian king. He wishes that “the warlike Harry, like himself” might “be crammed into this wooden O” who would
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment.
But the Chorus of act V uses the same excuse to explain the factual inaccuracies of the historical narrative we are witnessing:
Vouchsafe to those that have not read the story,
That I may prompt them: and of such as have,
I humbly pray them to admit the excuse
Of time, of numbers and due course of things,
Which cannot in their huge and proper life
Be here presented.
Those who read Holinshed before attending the play should allow those who haven’t to accept the verisimilitude of the dramatist’s account and should themselves excuse the discrepancies and contradictions of the historical record.
When Fluellen clumsily attempts to draw a comparison between Henry and Alexander the Pig (comic Welsh pronunciation for Big), Gower corrects him:
GOWER Alexander the Great.
FLUELLEN Why, I pray you, is not pig great? the pig, or the
great, or the mighty, or the huge, or the
magnanimous, are all one reckonings, save the phrase
is a little variations.
Gower changes the subject, but big or huge is not the same as great or magnanimous, and it is merely the misrepresentation of the hugeness of history rather than its greatness for which the Chorus now apologizes.
But Shakespeare takes liberties with the facts that are not justified merely by the constraints of the theater. It is the imperative to convey the spirit (in a Hegelian sense) of the historical age as well as metaphorically to show “the very age and body of the [present] time his form and pressure,” and not merely the need to turn “the accomplishment of many years into an hourglass” that motivates the telescoping of distant events and the omission of a vast number of key episodes in his sources. Why should his “unworthy scaffold” force him to invent characters and subplots? Why expand the sixty odd lines of the wooing of Katherine in the anonymous Famous Victories of Henry V to 200 lines at the close of the play, elaborating an episode that never happened, if he is struggling against his time constraints to give us history, like itself?
The Chorus’ belabored reminders that we are watching a theatrical representation of history calls to our attention that history only exists in its representations. Whether it means assuming the great “port of Mars,” or accurately following the “due course of things…in their huge and proper life,” the incapacity for any representation to show history, “like itself,” is a form of the real vs. ideal dichotomy that the historical Henry himself embodied and which was one of the primary obsessions of the Renaissance. We do not expect to find the mythological ideal anywhere but in poetry, but when we search for the factual ideal—events, like themselves in their true chronological sequence—that the real limitations of the theater are here blamed for preventing, when we try to “mind true things by what their mockeries be,” we find, rather than true things, only more mockeries, more imperfect representations of imperfect representations. Henry V is not a window into the past, but the mirrour of all Christian kings, and it is the minds of the audience that must “kindly eke out our performance.”
Henry V is unique in Shakespeare’s work in that its dating is aided by the Chorus’ reference to “the general of our gracious empress” who in good time may “return from Ireland with rebellion broached on his sword.” I won’t go into the competing theories for the person alluded to or the dating they imply, but, assuming its ingenuousness, this allusion should remind us that the issues of war and imperialism on which the play discourses were not remote and abstract speculation about the dead past, but immediate and concrete. Some in the audience may have just bribed a Falstaff to excuse them from foreign service; some recently may have spent long nights in the Irish fens thinking about whether they should seek after the justice of the queen’s cause, or whether their obedience to their sovereign wiped the crime of it out of them.
This last concern, expressed by the soldier Bates to a disguised Henry V in another protracted unhistorical episode that Shakespeare invents ostensibly to show us the warlike Harry, like himself, also strikingly echoes the chief anxiety for the commoner during the religious Reformation. If the sovereign is a heretic in the eyes of God, does obedience wipe the crime of it out of one’s soul, or is every man’s bad religion upon his own head? Christological echoes run throughout the play, as in Henry’s ultimatum to Harfleur: “…to our best mercy give yourselves, [for later]…the gates of mercy shall be all shut up,” and the relationship between Church and imperialist state is prominently developed in the first two scenes in which the self-interested sanction of the war by the Archbishop of Canterbury wipes the crime of it out of Henry.
It is only in these terms that the carrying forward of the Williams episode for two hundred lines during the climax of Henry’s conquest of France makes any sense. It may serve dramatically to break up and naturalize Henry’s mythologized speechifying, but why, at this pivotal moment in the history of Henry V, does Shakespeare interpolate this completely unhistorical event which has no intertextual connection to the rest of the play?
The initial dialogue between the disguised Henry and the three soldiers: Williams, Bates, and Court, is no doubt important. As expressive of the plight of the common soldier facing death in the king’s wars, this scene can arguably further the representation of history like itself, and it leads to Henry’s one real soliloquy in which, as he’s about to lead hundreds of tired and sick soldiers to almost certain slaughter because he wishes to sit on the throne of France, he ponders the hardships of being a king.
But why not end it here? Why create a dramatic tension that needs to be resolved before the end of the play by having Williams issue a challenge to Henry who has taken umbrage at his sarcastic reply that threatening the king with mistrust for breaking his oath (mentioned twice in Holinshed) never to be ransomed is like trying to “…turn the sun to ice by fanning in its face with a peacock feather.”
I’d like to point to some possible clues: first, the name Williams; second the glove; third the peacock feather; fourth, the costume; last, but not least, the crowns. I believe that these terms identify the theme of the episode as self-referential of the playwright’s rhetorical position. Williams, a commoner, comes close to getting himself accused of treason for being too free of his tongue regarding the king’s character, coercive state propaganda, and the injustices of war. After explaining himself to the king, he is instead rewarded with a glove full of crowns. William S a glover by birth is rewarded with a mess of crowns by the state (perhaps a plea for the royal patronage achieved by his company three years later) for fanning in the sovereign’s face with a feather, i.e. for representing the complaints of the commoners to the monarchy with a quill.
In other words, by moving Henry and Williams’ dispute between popular and courtly venues, Shakespeare positions the role of the dramatist of the public theater as an intermediary between the complaints and sentiments of the commoners and the state. In raising problematic issues of English history and politics in both popular and aristocratic theaters (as well as universities and Inns of Court), Shakespeare suggests that the acting company is, on the one hand, like the disguised Henry (albeit in reverse: commoners dressed as monarchs) representing state ideology to the commoners, so they fight the state’s wars cheerfully, and on the other, like Williams, representing to the state the voice of those whom it requires to fight its wars.
The soliloquy that follows Henry’s argument with the soldiers is the product that Shakespeare is marketing to the state. It performs both tasks simultaneously: on the one hand, it presents the character of English monarchy in the most flattering light to the audience of the public theater, and on the other it points the monarchy to the ambiguities of its character in the eyes of the commoners that may prevent it from fighting the Irish war cheerfully (and therefore effectively, which it was not). The dramatist and audience in the public theater (much more vocal and participatory than in modern theater) should be allowed to express their political sentiments freely, as Williams initially does to the disguised Henry, rather than being terrorized by the state into obsequious silence, so that the state may know the nature of their discontents.
If Williams is self-referential of William S, he had good reason to fear the consequences of inadvertently incurring the wrath of the queen by too openly staging a critique of the myths of just war as they were canonized in Holinshed’s Henry V and were currently being mobilized in Ireland. The year that Henry V likely was being written, the playwright Hayward came close to being racked for just this offense as reported by Francis Bacon who says that:
The Queen was mightily incensed against Haywarde, on account of a book he dedicated to Lord Essex, [the main candidate, by the way, for Shakespeare’s “general of our empress”] being a story of the first year of Henry IV, thinking it a seditious prelude to put into the people’s heads boldness and faction: She said, she had an opinion that there was treason in it, and asked me, if I could not find any places in it, that might be drawn within the case of treason? Whereto I answered, for treason, sure I found none; but for felony very many: And when her majesty hastily asked me, Wherein? I told her, the author had committed very apparent theft: For he had taken most of the sentences of Cornelius Tacitus... (Parry, 39)
Bacon’s intercession seems in part to have saved Hayward from the rack and a more ominous charge of treason. It is treason for which Fluellen wishes to see Williams hanged, and it is this kind of intervention for which Pistol pleads to Fluellen on behalf of Bardolph who is to be hanged for stealing from a church against the king’s express orders.
We are told in Holinshed that, on landing in France, Henry commands, in addition to not stealing from churches, that “No man should renew any quarrel or strife whereby any fray might arise to the disquieting of the army.” Fluellen’s endorsement of the justice of Bardolph’s hanging nevertheless leads to another in a long series of quarrels and strifes, running beneath the larger tide of war, from Pistol and Nym over Nell Quickly, through Fluellen and Macmorris, through Henry and Pistol to finally Fluellen and Pistol within which the altercations between Henry and Williams and Fluellen and Williams are contextualized. According to the rule that hanged Bardolph (and probably Nym), which Fluellen endorses: “for if, look you, he were my brother, I would desire the duke to use his good pleasure, and put him to execution; for discipline ought to be used,” should likewise hang, not only Fluellen, Pistol, and Macmorris, but Henry himself who when faced with traitors against his life who similarly to Fluellen counsel the hanging of a traitor, tells them: “You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy; For your own reasons turn into your bosoms, As dogs upon their masters, worrying you.” He then likens their treason to a second fall rendering all men untrustworthy:
Show men dutiful?
Why, so didst thou: seem they grave and learned?
Why, so didst thou: come they of noble family?
Why, so didst thou: seem they religious?
Why, so didst thou…
“Why so didst thou” seems to me ultimately to be the essence of Shakespeare’s challenge to the state in his representation of its most idealized myth of legitimacy, of its claim to greatness rather than mere pigness. Did Bardolph violate military discipline? Why so didst thou. Did Grey, Scroop, and Cambridge conspire to overthrow their lawful sovereign? Why so didst thou. Did the French king claim legitimate inheritance of a usurped throne? Why so didst thou. Has he excluded a claim to his throne through a female line? Why so didst thou. Have the common soldiers put the guilt of an unjust war on the authority that led them to it? Why so didst thou.
It has often been remarked that Henry does not really answer the question put to him by Williams which is predicated on the condition: “if the cause be not good.” Like Henry’s oath not to be ransomed, his claim to the justice of his cause is repeatedly cited by Holinshed, but as in Holinshed, Shakespeare’s Henry offers nothing but the tortured legalism of the Church as support.
That the cause is just is, according to Williams, more than we the common soldiers know, but it is also more than we the audience know. Shakespeare’s Henry fails to answer this question because history fails to answer it. It is what makes the difference between Henry the Pig and Henry the Great, and its irresolution casts a long shadow over the outward show of comic closure that ultimately legitimizes the Tudor myth.
If Williams the soldier’s defense against the charge that speaking critically of the state is treasonous is really William the playwright’s defense against the charge of treason that Elizabeth wished to lay against Hayward, then the admonition which he is fanning in the sun’s face with his feather must be that, instead of repressing the open political discourse of the public theater, the state must make certain that the wars it asks its subjects to fight cheerfully are just.