When Lawrence Olivier produced Henry V toward the end of World War II it was partly funded by the government and intended as a morale booster. It was an heroic spectacle, a celebration of monarchy and a reminder of Britain’s past exploits in France.
It opened in November 1944; five months after the Normandy invasion. Britain was back on the continent of Europe. It’s a terrific film and an even better piece of propaganda.
Although Henry V is often thought of as Shakespeare’s most patriotic play beloved of flag-wavers and jingoists – post-war interpreters began to see a darker more complex King Henry. They argued that abridged versions – such as Olivier’s – distorted Shakespeare’s sly and subversive raid on imperialism, militarism and the dangers of charismatic leaders.
Elizabeth Jennings’ poem was part of her collection Extending the Territory in 1985. I assume that the production she refers to is the RSC’s from 1984 directed by Adrian Noble that starred Kenneth Branagh as King Henry. This production was notable for restoring many of the elements of the text that Olivier had omitted.
A Performance of Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon
by Elizabeth Jennings
Nature teaches us our tongue again
And the swift sentences came pat. I came
Into cool night rescued from rainy dawn.
And I seethed with language – Henry at
Harfleur and Agincourt came apt for war
In Ireland and the Middle East. Here was
The riddling and right tongue, the feeling words
Solid and dutiful. Aspiring hope
Met purpose in “advantages” and “He
That fights with me today shall be my brother.”
Say this is patriotic, out of date.
But you are wrong. It never is too late
For nights of stars and feet that move to an
Iambic measure; all who clapped were linked,
The theatre is our treasury and too,
Our study, school-room, house where mercy is
Dispensed with justice. Shakespeare has the mood
And draws the music from the dullest heart.
This is our birthright, speeches for the dumb
And unaccomplished. Henry has the words
For grief and we learn how to tell of death
With dignity. “All was as cold” she said
“As any stone” and so, we who lacked scope
For big or little deaths, increase, grow up
To purposes and means to face events
Of cruelty, stupidity. I walked
Fast under stars. The Avon wandered on
“Tomorrow and tomorrow”. Words aren’t worn
Out in this place but can renew our tongue,
Flesh out our feeling, make us apt for life.
Adrian Noble’s production with Kenneth Branagh as Henry restored the more violent and bloodthirsty elements that Olivier omitted. The 1984 Henry beheads the three Southampton plot traitors; belligerently threatens the population of Harfleur with dire consequences and issues the order “Then every soldier kill his prisoners”.
We don’t expect medieval kings to observe the Geneva Conventions, however – killing prisoners just because of a suspicion the French were regrouping was decidedly not part of the chivalric code. Olivier also understandably left out the pessimistic reference at the end about how France was soon to be lost again.
That 1984 Stratford production presented a more ruthless and unscrupulously ambitious King Henry. Times had changed. Britain had just seen Margaret Thatcher’s popularity surge with the Falklands War for example. When Branagh himself directed his film version – 1989 – it was steeped in mud and blood but the war crime of killing the prisoners was again left out. Branagh presented a more sanitized and less morally questionable Henry that the original text and the production at Stratford that preceded it.
The poem says “all who clapped were linked.” Jennings loved the theater and sees Shakespeare’s language as a matter of heritage – a “treasury, study, schoolroom” – a restorative gift of language that fleshes out feeling and makes us “apt for life.”
That said – when she makes reference to this play and its relevance for contemporary issues in Ireland and the Middle East I’m not sure she actually wanted to “close the wall up with our English dead” or threaten non-combatant foreigners with “the filthy and contagious clouds/ Of heady murder, spoil and villainy” nor put babies heads on pikes.
All that patriotic theatrical stirring needs to be tempered to the times. In 1944 Britain was engaged in a battle for its very existence – the reality of the text need a little sanitizing when it came to questions of moral complexity. The righteousness of the cause and the moral high ground mattered when it came to waging all-out war.
By 1984, circumstances were different. people were free to be more cynical about patriotism. The speaker in the poem – whom I assume to be Jennings – herself emerges into the cool night stirred by the language and patriotism.
Shakespeare’s King Henry : Heroic soul-stirring patriot? Humane conflicted leader? War criminal? It all depends on the choices made in production and what you want to hear.
And just look at this Richard Burton dreamboat King Henry : For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman Act IV Scene vii.
Burton was relatively unknown when he was cast to play Henry as prince and king at Stratford. He had all the attributes of magnetic stage presence, good looks, energy and – his voice! The influential theater critic Kenneth Tynan wrote: “His playing of Prince Hal turned interested speculation to awe almost as soon as he started to speak; in the first intermission local critics stood agape in the lobbies.” By the end of the season his star was launched.
You can listen to Burton’s Eve of Agincourt speech here:
Featured image: Shakespeare against a London Background unknown artist.