Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Harry Lies: Propaganda in Shakespeare's Henry V

"Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!"

We live in a post-truth age. Conflicts rage around the world, but nobody can agree on who started them, who's going to end them or even who's actually been killed in them. If only we lived in a simpler age, one in which the who, the why and the how of warfare was much clearer. Shakespeare's age, for example.

Well, maybe not. Shakespeare wrote a lot of Histories, but there wasn't much history in them. Most of them were about Henries: three Henry VIs, two Henry IVs and a Henry V. It was, as Ben Elton put it, a veritable Henry Theatrical Universe. But it was also a fictional, theatrical universe.

In that universe it it Henry V that remains the most well known and well quoted. Like all Shakespeare it's hotly debated what it is all about. Even the question of whether it is pro or anti war is still up for debate. In no small part this is because Shakespeare never wrote with simple themes. The play is both pro and anti war, because that's the way Shakespeare seemed to want it.

However, there does seem to me one theme in Henry V that is quite clear, and I'm surprised how little it is discussed given its relevance to today. It seems to me that whilst it may sit on the fence on the morality of conflict, it is very much a master class on one particular aspect of war: propaganda. Throughout the play the words and actions of the principle characters are often jarringly at odds. What is being said and what is being done are often at ninety degrees to each other. Shakespeare may never have seen a real war, but he clearly knew what the first casualty was.

"Now all the youth of England are on fire"

In case there is any doubt that this is a theme of the play Shakespeare, through the mouth of Chorus, pretty much tells us this right at the start. Apologising for the limitations of the theatre, Chorus says we will only be dealing with "imaginary forces". There will be no actual battles, only words. This point loses it a bit today as most people - including me - have only seen Henry V on screen, where we do actually get very realistic fight.

The disinformation though starts well before the fighting. The play begins with Chorus asking us to imagine in the theatre:

Are we now confined two mighty monarchs
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts 
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder

However this is immediately followed by the appearance of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely, who are discussing Henry's plans to tax the church. In response they plan to distract Henry by having him claim his right to a chunk of France, knowing this will lead to war. The cause of the war is never mentioned again by any of the characters, and is usually forgotten by the audience as well, which I suspect is Shakespeare's point.

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more"

And so we fast forward to the action: the siege of Harfleur.

Except that we don't. As Act III begins, with Harry's speech urging his men to death or glory, the attack has already failed. The speech is immediately followed by a cut to the ordinary soldiers Nym, Bandolph and Pistol, who have decided that enough is enough. But this is just the Bard warming up. The real hit comes next. Henry stands before the city gates and gives the following blood-curdling speech.

If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh'd soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.

What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?


The point here is not just that our brave hero is threatening the murder or rape of the civilians of the town, which is in itself a pretty eye-opening thing for a noble hero to be doing. Nor is it that he's blaming the French for it, which is one of the oldest propaganda tricks in the book. The real point is that he is threatening something he can't possibly do. The attack has failed, all he has left is bluff.

But it works. The French are in an equally parlous state, and throw in the towel.

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers"

But what really shows that Harry has the gift of the gab though is his speech on the battlefield of Agincourt.

It is, of course, quite magnificent, enough to make even the most cowardly pacifist take up a longbow and pot a Frenchie or two. However amongst the flowery rhetoric are some pretty bonkers suggestions. Such as:

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

This is clearly nuts. Following this logic Harry should send the army home and fight the French alone. What's more, even Henry clearly doesn't mean it. He has put every man he has into the battle line, leaving his baggage train guarded by only young boys, and if he had more men he'd have no doubt put them into the field too. His words do not match his actions.

But, once again, it works. His men fight better than the enemy and win the battle.

"Then every soldier kill his prisoners"

And so we come to the most controversial part of the play, so controversial it's usually missed out.

It's Act IV, Scene VI. The battle has been going on for three scenes now and the French army has broken. Hal does not know this yet though, and at the end of the scene the French appear to be attacking again.

But, hark! what new alarum is this same?
The French have reinforced their scatter'd men
Then every soldier kill his prisoners
Give the word through

Yes, brave Harry has just ordered his men to kill unarmed prisoners of war.

However, it is a false alarm, the battle is in fact won. However at the start of Scene VII he comes across the consequences of putting every man into the battle line. The French have sneaked round the back killed the boys who he had left defending the baggage. Surveying their bodies Shakespeare has Henry say

I was not angry since I came to France
Until this instant.
Besides, we'll cut the throats of those we have
And not a man of them that we shall take
Shall taste our mercy.

So Henry has just told his men to massacre the French prisoners again. Why is Hal telling his men to kill people who are already dead?

Here we have Shakespeare using propaganda in a way that echoes all too readily in modern ears. The two armies have each committed what we would today call war crimes, and although they didn't have that term then, in an Age of Chivalry killing prisoners of war and boys was still not considered a terribly good thing. However, Henry now intends to justify his atrocities by pretending the French started it. His order to kill the prisoners, issued rashly out of perceived military necessity, has just been spun to be an understandable response to Gallic frightfulness. 

"They lost France and made his England bleed"

So Hal wins his battle, and then the hand of the fair Kate, daughter of the King of France. But how does Shakespeare's most jingoistic play actually end? With Chorus summing it all up.

He again apologises for the limitations of the theatre, calls England "the world's best garden", then ends with a zinger: "... left his son imperial lord. Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown'd King Of France and England." Henry VI, the subject of Shakespeare's first three histories, was the king whose failures lost France and led to the Wars of the Roses. The entire story of Henry V then meant nothing. It was all just propaganda.

The huge irony about Henry V being a play about propaganda though is that it ended up being used as propaganda. All his Histories were puff-pieces for the Tudors really, but in the years since then it was generally Henry V that was rolled out when a bit of fiery rhetoric was needed. Lawrence Olivier's magnificent 1944 film version was just that, with the French standing in for the Nazis, which was a bit mean as they were on our side in that war.

Actually though this is a bit more than irony. Writing a play about the lies and deceptions that send young men to their deaths in pointless conflicts, that ends up getting used to send young men to their deaths in pointless conflicts is slightly more than just ironic. It's actually an epic fail.


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