I was thinking recently about the supposedly "pro-war" nature of Shakespeare's Henry V - a reading of the work I have never agreed with or appreciated. That led to my re-reading the play, and the formation of a very different opinion on Shakespeare's intention....
Henry V Analysis: Prologue
The most common interpretation of the Henry V chorus is that it features primarily as merely a method to introduce the setting – but if it were to be assumed that Shakespeare was an astute writer with at least some knowledge of sub-textual layering, than it can also be assumed that he did not waste the introduction to the final play in his second tetralogy. An introduction can be nothing more – but in Shakespeare’s hands it goes considerably further.
The play is extremely vast in scope, dealing with armies in the tens-of-thousands, horses, cannons; vast castles and cities – none of which could be replicated on the stage, especially not during a time when the stage was traditionally undressed. Viewed from this common interpretation, the prologue acts in place of set dressings, providing the audience with an understanding of the scope of the play, as well as an appeal that they should use their imaginations freely to fill in the scope of the action. However, the prologue, in its very style, bares the suggestion of something considerably more.
The Greek chorus was not a common theatrical technique during Shakespeare’s time, and indeed, the Bard only used it twice in all his collected works (Romeo and Juliet, and Henry V.) Its position here links it directly to the classical productions of antiquity (specifically the classical tragedies,) and in this way it continues to set the tone, by presenting this play as an “epic” in the Greek tradition – while also foreshadowing the tragic nature of the entire story – an effective argument against those who would seek to name this a “pro war” or “monarchy positive” play. This aspect is brought to the literal fore of the prologue in the line “O for a Muse of fire.” By invoking the Greek Muse – the goddess of inspiration, wisdom, and art – Shakespeare clearly positions this play within the realm of serious intellectual consideration. It becomes more than mere set dressing – it becomes a proclamation of the importance Shakespeare is placing on this production, and the tone with which it should be viewed by the audience.
Once again: if the assumption is to be made that Shakespeare was capable of working on several different layers of meaning throughout his work (of which there is ample support,) than it would not be beyond the bounds of rationality to assume that the opening lines of the final play in his second tetralogy are not wasted.
Without spending too much time on the political and social situation of Shakespeare’s time, it is sufficient to say that he was confined to certain limitations in direct speech regarding political positions – especially the politics of government and war. Shakespeare was forced to find a way to present his position, without actually attracting overt attention to his message. Which he accomplishes by hiding his intention for the entire play within the prologue – the best spot in the play to place a clear appeal directly from the playwright to the audience. And this intention is clearly formed within the prologue itself. With the Greek chorus linking this work to the solemnity and purpose of the ancient tragedies, Shakespeare is free to assume that his following words will be treated with a certain level of attention and regard.
Bringing the subject to something resembling conclusion, we can assign the chorus once again to the more widely-held readings – as direct praise for the historical King Henry, or as a rebuff against the critics of Shakespeare’s time who argued that he played too wildly with the concept of continuity of time and space within his work. Leaving the argument there however fails to stretch the mind, and limits the reviewer to parroting of predefined positions. It can be surmised that the Bard was not lazy of mind or meek of character, and it is admitted on the scholarly stage that his ability to layer meaning is impressive and intentional – given all this, it seems only logical to assume that Henry V is not a shallow production, and that the playwright may have gone farther than merely “set dressing” in the prologue.
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