O! for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
... Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt? -- Chorus, opening lines
Henry V is the last in a series of four of Shakespeare's plays tracing the lives and reigns of the monarchs Henry IV (who usurped the throne of Richard II) and his son, whom we saw grow, in Henry IV parts 1 & 2, from the roistering bad boy Prince Hal to the sober young king Henry V. It's the story of a new ruler at war abroad, pressing his claim to the throne in France. Full of lofty speeches, it is sometimes seen as a patriotic celebration of a beloved and heroic warrior king, inspiring his men to glory against great odds:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
From this day to the ending of the world,
... we in it shall be rememberèd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.
But darker readings are possible. On his deathbed, Henry IV had advised his son to keep the peace at home by distracting his subjects with wars abroad, and the opening of this play suggests that a desire for the riches of France is the other main motive for the war. Although the Chorus praises King Henry as admirable in every way, he can be ruthless in war, threatening a besieged city if they do not surrender to him:
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 it then to me...?
The Chorus tells us that the king heartens his soldiers by going among them in the evening,
A little touch of Harry in the night.
But when we see Henry speaking incognito with the common men, he gets into a fight with one who voices these doubts about the war:
But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left.
Once alone, Henry reflects bitterly that he is to be loaded with responsibility for his subjects' lives and souls, and in return gets nothing but ceremony. Kingship is perhaps incompatible with friendship. Earlier in the play, we hear of the death of Falstaff, the roguish old companion of Henry's youth, whom he abruptly banished from his presence when he took the crown.
The king has killed his heart,
mourns the kindly Hostess Quickly.
There is a glimpse of possible personal happiness for Henry at the end of the play, when he woos Kate, daughter of the French king, despite the language barrier between them.
Controversy remains strong about what to make of this play, its protagonist, and Shakespeare's views on kingship. Come read the play with us and see what you think.
LOCATION & LOGISTICS: We're back to a Saturday afternoon. We'll meet at the Queen Anne Branch of Seattle Public Library at 400 W. Garfield St., in the meeting room. (This event is not sponsored by the Seattle Public Library.) See here for directions : http://www.spl.org/locations/queen-anne-branch/qna-getting-to-the-branch There's street parking available. Metro bus routes 2 and 13 go there.
We can bring food into the meeting room as long as we clean up afterwards. This is one of the longer plays, so allowing for distributing parts, taking an intermission and optional discussion at the end it will take much of the afternoon.
Bring a copy of the text if you have one, but if you don't, don't worry - we can share. It's not necessary to read the play before hand, but it's helpful to be familiar with the plot
I didn't want to delay posting any longer just because I didn't have a synopsis written - you could easily Google one if you like!