A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Henry V and the Motives for War


It's somewhere around the year 1415 in England and Henry V, formerly Prince Hal in the two Henry IV prequels, has ascended the throne as a suddenly statesmanlike soldier king. When the Dauphin of France sends him an insulting gift of tennis balls, implying that Henry remains the lightweight he was considered to be when prince, Henry is infuriated. Bardseye's left-leaning readers who believe America invaded Iraq on a pretext will be delighted by the appearance Shakespeare creates of England invading France over a handful of tennis balls. Here's the French Ambassador discharging a nervous assignment, and Henry's response (meeter means more suitable):

Amb: "Your highness, lately sending into France,
Did claim some certain dukedoms, in the right
Of your great predecessor, King Edward the Third.
In answer of which claim, the Prince our master
Says that you savor too much of your youth,…
He therefore sends you, meeter for your spirit,
This tun of treasure, and in lieu of this
Desires you let the dukedoms that you claim
Hear no more of you. This the Dauphin speaks."

(A casket is presented; Exeter examines its contents.)

King: "What treasure, uncle?

Exeter: "Tennis balls, my liege."

King: "We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us.
His present and your pains we thank you for.
When we have matched our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God's grace, play a set…
And tell the pleasant Prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them, for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers out of sons, mock castles down
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the dauphin's scorn…".

This speech reveals a motive that would hardly pass the Catholic Church's "Just War" test, and in the spirit of fair play, bardseye offers it to opposers of our military actions in Iraq.

Bardseye himself wholeheartedly supports the toppling of Saddam even without reference to the war on terror or any massively destructive weapons. I see it as a great moral advance in human history, the muscular interruption of a holocaust, the ending of a mass murder, the expression in blood and sacrifice of the injunction to be our brothers' keepers. And in reality not as much a war as the ending of a war conducted by Saddam against his own people.

But you are free to disagree. And for those bardseye viewers who do, I even offer you the above Henry V speech to support your position. An olive branch offered within this Shakespearean embassy.

Returning to Henry V, and its second offered motive for war, Shakespeare gives away that this motive - a supposedly rightful claim by birth to much of France - is indeed a mere pretext. This claim is so obscure that King Henry himself needs the Archbishop of Canterbury to explain it to him. Basically, many kings before, Edward III's mother was sister to the French King, and the Salic laws which prohibited descent along the maternal line, the Archbishop argues, apply only to parts of Germany not France. (This is not a fast-paced section of the play):

Cant: "Then hear me, gracious sovereign, and you peers,
That owe yourselves, your lives, and services
To this imperial throne. There is no bar
To make against Your Highness' claim to France
But this…" (speech continues for another sixty lines)

One feels in this speech the cadences of a reluctant Colin Powell making his plodding case for WMD at the United Nations. Even if such weapons existed (and a non-paranoid and also largely non-interested bardseye assumes they were at least thought to exist), Shakespeare shows us that any such legalistic cassus belli will never be the most inspiring reason for commencing hostilities. Bardseye feels we should more proudly have announced our intention to end a holocaust, and should proceed to do the same anywhere in the world that civilians are murdered en masse.

A digression (unless the Shakespeare stuff is.)

Back in the 1400's, Henry proceeds to beat the stuffing out of France, which seems to be the main point, and he makes lots of great speeches which bardseye intends to use whenever opportunities arise, and best of all the common people of England are put on display, especially when Henry walks incognito among the troops before the big battle. The idea - our third motive - that it is natural for a nation, finding itself prosperous and growing, to express its rude health in war is expressed by the chorus in the opening to Act II (wardrobe means closet):

Cho: "Now all the youth of England are on fire,
And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies.
Now thrive the armorers, and honor's thought
Reigns solely in the breast of every man.
They sell the pasture now to buy the horse,
Following the mirror of all Christian kings,
With winged heels, as English Mercurys.
For now sits Expectation in the air…".

So there you have it: three theories of the causes and motives for war in as many scenes. Which do you believe? Which did Shakespeare? As usual, the bard is opaque in matters of policy; clear only in matters of humanity.

Here's a related post from the always recommendable political teen.
And here's one from the always recommendable basil's blog.

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