War and William Shakespeare

War and William Shakespeare

This past winter, as the debate over invading Iraq intensified, I received an e-mail announcement for an “anti-war” production of Shakespeare’s Henry V being staged in Los Angeles. For people who know the play only from Laurence Olivier’s Anglo-patriotic, World-War-II-era movie, this may be puzzling. However, it will come as no surprise to those familiar with the play’s production and critical history. That Henry V can support both patriotic pro-war and critical antiwar interpretations has been discussed to a fare-thee-well among Shakespeare critics, scholars, and directors.

Shakespeare’s two-sided position can be seen even in a very quick examination of the play. In its first scene, the archbishops of Canterbury and Ely are fretting over a bill about to be passed by Parliament that would strip the church of much of its property. In order to get King Henry to kill the bill, Canterbury plans to offer a big contribution to the king’s war chest for an invasion of France. Henry is descended from a French princess and claims that the crown should have passed to his great-grandfather when the last of the French descendents of the royal house died (the crown was given instead to a cousin of the royal family). The French have barred Henry’s claim by holding up an ancient Frankish law (the Salic Law) that does not allow inheritance through women. In the next scene, Henry asks Canterbury whether the French argument is legitimate; if it is not, he believes, an invasion of France would be justified. In substance, Canterbury’s argument is straightforward: the Salic Law was devised for territory that is now in Germany, not France, and the kings of France themselves have inherited through women. However, this argument is presented in such an absurdly intricate manner that, to an audience hearing it for the first time, it sounds like double-talk. It sounds like double-talk to Henry as well: after Canterbury’s long speech, he repeats his question: “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” Canterbury replies, “The sin upon my head, dread sovereign.” After exhortations from his nobles, Henry decides to invade.

Shakespeare is ambiguous as to whether Henry’s claim is just. On the one hand, the audience knows that Canterbury has an ulterior motive for justifying the claim, and his speech comes across as obfuscation. On the other hand, his arguments are, given the values of dynastic politics, sound.

Later in the play, at a point when a lengthy siege has failed to get the French town of Harfleur to surrender, Henry tells the governor of the town that if the English are forced to continue the siege, he will no longer be able to control his soldiers. When the town falls, “look to see/The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand/Defile the locks of your shrill, shrieking daughters;/Your fathers taken by the silver beards,/and their ...