Monday, January 4, 2016

'A pot of ale and safety' in Henry V

‘A pot of ale and safety’

The Life of Henry V

     ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ – what a glorious line. And Henry is, if nothing else, glorious in war. ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends.’ Oh, he stirs them into patriotic action and against all odds this ragamuffin English army defeats the grand nobles of France. It’s history. It happened. It’s happened in other places, other wars.
     For what? Who cares if England or France had the crown of England or France but for a few macho aristocrats?
     The play can be done as a farce, as did the Globe. It can be done as war propaganda, as did Olivier. It can be done as a grim portrayal of war, with its valour, heroism and brutal pointless violence. As in the Hollow Crown and Branagh versions.
     It doesn’t demand a very sharp eye to discern the stark thread of reality throughout the play’s tapestry of patriotism and piety. Not everyone is all fired up to conquer the French, using flimsy historical hereditary labyrinths as an excuse.
     As England heads for war Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, Mistress Quickly and the boy are more concerned with their own quarrels and with the death of Falstaff. ‘The king,’ Mistress Quickly mourns, ‘has killed his heart’ (Act 2.2). True. As we saw in Henry IV Part Two, the king did not start out heroically.
     We see none of Henry’s farewells as he leaves for France, nor any of his lords as they leave their families, but we see Mistress Quickly and her new husband Pistol part, and Bardolph, Nym and the boy as they leave their friend Nell behind. It can and should be played as a sorrowful scene as it is in the Hollow Crown and Branagh versions. It is not a happy or glorious parting, this going to war.
     Ah. Once more unto the breach, dear friends. An apt quote when we have a difficult task in front of us. For Harry and his soldiers, it likely means injury and death. But off they go. Except for the clear-sighted Nym, encouraged by Bardolph:

Pray thee, corporal, stay; the knocks are too hot, and for mine own part, I have not a case of lives (Act 3.2)

     Pistol tries to be philosophical:

Knocks go and come, God’s vassals drop and die
And sword and shield,
In bloody field,
Doth win immortal fame (Act 3.2)

     To which the boy replies, in one of Shakespeare’s most poignant lines:

Would I were in an ale-house in London: I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety (Act 3.2).

He then vows to leave them, as ‘their villainy goes against my weak stomach’ (Act 3.2).
     The boy’s longing to be in Eastcheap and quit his villainous friends is paralleled later as King Henry wanders incognito amongst his foot soldiers the night before battle. Before Harry arrives Bates has said to Williams, ‘We have no great cause to desire the approach of day’ (act 4.1). Indeed, they don’t - it is not their war. The Chorus has told us that, ‘Now all the youth of England are on fire’ (Act 2), a phenomenon all too familiar in our own day. Bates and Williams were perhaps among the fired up youth but the realities of war have jarred them into their senses. When Harry comes and tries to convince them that the king is just a man, like others, Bates and Williams are not impressed. Bates says, perhaps bitterly,

…as cold a night as ‘tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck; and so I would he were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here (Act 4.1).

When Harry assures him that the king would not wish to be anywhere but right there Bates retorts:

Then I would he were alone; so should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men’s lives saved (Act 4.1).

     If Harry isn’t shaken by this, he should be. But he is the king and convinced that any soldier ‘could not die anywhere so contented as in the King’s company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable’ (Act 4.1)
     How many times have the leaders of invading armies said that throughout the centuries?
     Williams: ‘That’s more than we know’ (Act 4.1).
     What a simple line. What a short sentence. And it turns the patriotic play upside down.
     Harry must assume his cause is just. He has enough conscience not to start a war otherwise but the doubt of these two soldiers in the justness of that cause also ‘expose the cracks in the king’s armour’ (intro RSC edition, p. 1028, about another scene but appropriate here as well). That doubt is succinctly expressed by Williams:

…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 a 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. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle, for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it – who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection (Act 4.1, my italics).

     There are few die well who die in a battle…  If these men do not die well it will be a black matter for the king.
     The doubt has been raised and cannot be unraised. The blame has been brought to the king’s door and no pious prayers to God or St. Crispin’s band of brothers can chase it away.
     Harry has described the brutalities of war wrought upon families outside the gates of Harfleur but that speech was a threat, an expression of power.  Williams describes them from the soldier’s point of view, the soldier who does not die well in a battle, who leaves behind a poor wife and children.
     History is written by the winners. Harry wins his battle, justly caused or not.  He goes down in history as a heroic tragic king. Everything he gained through inheritance and battle and extortion his successors lose through incompetence.
            And the soldiers?  Bardolph, hanged. The boy, presumably killed. Pistol, returned to England to a dead wife. Williams, pardoned and enriched by a magnanimous King Harry, but not necessarily convinced that Harry’s war was a just one. No doubt he returned to England, plagued as soldiers are by memories of war.
     Patriotism and piety. The play is full of them. What stays with me are two lines:
     ‘I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.’
     And: ‘there are few die well that die in battle.’
     Could this be Shakespeare’s best play? Not because of the patriotism and piety but because the boy, Williams and the others reveal how cracked and faulty patriotism and piety are?

Works cited:
  • William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
  • Introduction. William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen

Films seen:
  • The Globe, 2012. Director: Dominic Dromgoole. Cast: King Henry – Jamie Parker; Chorus – Brid Brennan; Mistress Quickly/ Alice – Lisa Stevenson; Pistol – Sam Cox; Nym – David Hargreaves; Boy/ Princess Katherine - Olivia Ross; Bardolph – Paul Rider; Bates – Beruce Khan; Williams – Chris Starkie
    • I love the Globe but this is a real disappointment. It’s mostly slapstick and the few moments of depth disappear in the cheap laughs. Starkie is good as Williams, though.
  • The Hollow Crown – Henry V.  Director: Thea Sharrock. Cast: King Henry – Tom Hiddleston; Chorus – John Hurt; Mistress Quickly – Julie Walters; Pistol – Paul Ritter; Nym – Tom Brooke; Boy – George Sargeant; Bardolph  - Tom Georgeson; Bates – John Dalgliesh; Williams – Gwylim Lee
  • Henry V, 1989. Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: King Henry – Kenneth Branagh; Chorus – Derek Jacobi; Mistress Quickly – Judi Dench; Pistol – Robert Stephens; Nym – Geoffrey Hutchings; Boy – Christian Bale; Bardolph - Richard Briers; Bates – Shaun Prendergast; Williams – Michael Williams

Seen on stage: No

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