Monday Muse: War! What is it Good For?

(Is it really absolutely nothing?)

Heyo! Welcome to Week THREE (holy crap… are we really only two weeks away from Stratford?! I still have so many toiletries to procure!) of Shakespeare-a-Palooza 2016: Cactus Likes it Shakespearean! Week one covered Richard II and Henry IV pt One and, in case you were away, last week was As You Like ItThat leaves the other half of Henry IV and Henry V, as well as Macbeth. And, probably because I’m some sort of weirdo, I decided I wanted to write about Henry V instead of the Scottish Play. So, once again, I’m fully prepared for no one to read anything I write here. But, guys… Henry V is super cool!

And Tom Hiddleston played him!


How can you ignore that?

I’m not going to talk about Henry IV during the Monday Muse. Instead, I’ll save a review of that for Friday and focus entirely on his son this week. Henry V is a popular figure in English history. A hero, a true Medieval King (and perhaps the emblem of the office) who brought England glory, riches, military victory, and, best of all, the ability to say they kicked French ass. Not since Edward III was there a King of this bent, and this is most evident in the Battle of Agincourt (the third of the triad of great English victories of the 100 Years’ War). He ended up becoming the heir to the French throne and, had he lived, he would have united England and France for the first time in centuries (since King John lost it all).

But he did not live. And, because of his early death, England was doomed to half a century of bloody civil war.

This is what I love so much about the play. And about Henry himself. (Something I think, too, that Hiddleston got so right in his performance, but I guess that’s really A’s to talk about on Saturday, isn’t it?) It is a shining moment of glory made poignant by its tragic ephemerality. For a short few years, England was united, strong, and glorious in its outlook. Then it all came crashing down.

History provides the best stories, folks. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Seriously. Don’t let ANYONE tell you history is boring. It’s literally screaming “Hi! Story!” at you every time you say its name!

Anyway. For all this amazing unity and Englishness and national greatness, it’s really not clear how Shakespeare feels about the play’s central subject: war. You’d think a play that includes the “band of brothers” speech would be pretty straightforward on the matter: war, glorious war for the glory of glorious England! Especially in the reign of Elizabeth, Gloriana, who had a pretty well-known hard-on for violence, glory, and war. (She was known for really, really liking Titus Andronicus, for example.) But, really, there’s some question about whether or not the play is pro- or anti-war. Rather, it is considered by most to present a much fuller picture of the question, showing both the misery and the glory (apparently that’s the word of the day) of battle. For example, though the Chorus and Henry are full of noble words and bright deeds, the actions of the Eastcheap characters (Prince Hal’s friends from earlier plays) constantly undermine this perceived heroism. And Henry himself talks of raping and pillaging Harfleur one minute and patriotism/sacrifice the next. His actions at Agincourt with the prisoners-of-war are notably unchivalrous and unlikable. Hell, his own people tell him to his face (well, admittedly, he’s pretending to be a normal guy) that war isn’t great for the people who actually have to fight it. But, in the end, it’s the bombastic “once more unto the breach”-es that we remember.

Like, seriously… how many of you remember that there’s an entire part AFTER Agincourt where Henry woos Katherine of Valois and neither of them speak the same language and it’s adorable? OK, well, I’m sure most of you remember it, but doesn’t it feel a bit weird tacked on there after “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”? Because, really, we all seem to remember the glory most of all. And that’s Shakespeare’s strength: hiding a lot of depth behind the top layer of flowery language (though, admittedly, a lot of that depth is double entendre and fart jokes). It’s what I love so much about him.

But I see I’ve rambled again, and, for that, I apologize. Here’s another picture of Tom Hiddleston to make up for it:


He’s at his best as Henry when he’s dirty. I swear.



2 thoughts on “Monday Muse: War! What is it Good For?

  1. gah i never understood Henry IV? also the bbc looks utterly terrifying and i don’t have time or a tv or a computer to watch it on…

    I tried to read it once and i failed tragically. probably I should try again… i really like weird war commentary stuff. so.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Henry IV has two parts, so make sure you read both. Shakespeare’s histories definitely aren’t the easiest to understand on paper; I think they require performance more than most, especially the English histories. You’ve got so many Henrys and Richards and Edwards and Edmunds running around, all referred to by their title, and it’s daunting. The worst is Henry VI, which has three parts and which I am glad I did not have to talk about, as much as I love the Wars of the Roses. If you ever find someone who owns The Hollow Crown version, take the time to watch! Jeremy Irons makes a great Henry IV and his somewhat laconic style (basically Scar as a human king, lol) is more accessible than most, in my opinion. And Hiddleston makes an amazing Henry V!


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