Tuesday, January 26, 2010

For He Was Welsh, You Know: Reading Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth

Fluellen:  And I do believe your majesty takes
no scorn to wear the leek upon Saint Tavy’s day.

King Henry:  I wear it for a memorable honour,
For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman.

As I listened to John Metcalf’s Mapping Wales, I conjured a sky thick with Welsh archers’ arrows.  The arrows weren’t the stuff of my imagination, but a scene from Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V.  As one thing so often leads to another, I thought it time to give the film another look.

It’s odd what clings to memory and what slides away.  Along with the sky full of arrows, I remembered only glimmers of these few things:  the king’s night-walk through the camp before battle, his speech to rally the troops on St. Crispin’s Day, and the combatants’ slow procession through the battlefield to sort their dead.

But I hadn’t remembered Derek Jacobi standing in a trench coat on an empty stage to deliver the play’s incantation:  “O for a muse of fire, that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention.”  Nor had I remembered Judi Dench, as Mistress Quickly, poignantly telling of Falstaff’s death:  “for after I saw him fumble with the sheets, and play with flowers, and smile upon his finger’s end, I knew there was but one way.”  As I listened to Kenneth Branagh muse on ceremony and the lot of kings, I thought, perhaps it’s time to read the play.

In all my years on the planet, there’s not much Shakespeare that I’ve read.  This, despite living in a household with someone who quotes bits of it at will.  There she is, over the lamb curry, muttering:  “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”  Or here, poking through a box of seed packets collected over several years, but not yet used:  “If you can look into the seeds of time,/And say which grain will grow and which will not.”  Or, for no discernable reason, out comes, “When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,/I all alone beweep my outcast state.”

Likely only because of the company I keep, I’ve seen a reasonable amount of Shakespeare.  But as for reading Shakespeare?  Not so much.  A forced march in high school through Romeo and Juliet, perhaps Macbeth, perhaps Hamlet, and that’s all.  Even with what I’ve seen, not much sticks.  Of Kevin Kline’s Hamlet, I remember less about the production than about the Times review.  From A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the only phrase I recall is Elizabeth McGovern’s sweet-silly rendering of “O spite! O hell!

My attempt to read Henry V moved slowly.  First there was the question of which version:  the Folger, the Oxford, the Arden—or Reverend Hudson’s ancient volume, already on our shelves?  In the end I collected several and set them in a stack, inspiration of a sort.  I chose the just-bought Oxford, and all started well:  I read through, but didn’t labor at, the introduction, and was off to that brilliant opening chorus.  But then, with the Archbishop of Canterbury's Salic law speech, things bogged badly down.

It was time to consult the dreaded elders, so I reached for Harold Bloom.  His chapter on Henry V was (mercifully) short, so contained only a hint:  “the two religious caterpillars, Canterbury and Ely.”  Professor Humphreys shed more light, pronouncing the Salic law speech “unrivalled for tedium throughout Shakespeare’s works . . .”.  I started again, secure in the knowledge that I needn’t accord much weight to the Archbishop’s words.

Instead, I focused my reading on a hunt for some good Shakespearian insults and for references to leeks.  Along the way, I reveled in Fluellen’s fractured accounts of military strategy, and, with Shakespeare as my guide, I glimpsed into the minds of kings.

Among the elders, Shakespeare’s every line is a subject of debate, each point of view hotly held and just as hotly denied.  As for me, I’m glad to own this one small piece of reading Shakespeare.  Soon, “Once more unto the breach” I’ll go, for there’s a long list of history plays ahead.

<<< >>>
"O for a muse of fire"

St. Crispin's Day

"Let there be sung Non Nobis and Te Deum"


  1. Nicely done, Raining Acorns! I particularly enjoyed the clip of “Non Nobis and Te Deum”, lovely indeed although not sure of the meaning. Non Nobis (not unto us), Te Deum (thee God)…although the context not so lovely, “fellowship of death”, and what did he mean by “the dead with charity enclosed in clay” before they burst into song?

    Romeo and Juliet, the Movie (Franco Zeffirelli 1969) and high school English contributed to my familiarity with Shakespearian literature & period pieces in general. Much Ado About Nothing (the “vintage” version) was a cult classic among my friends in San Francisco, very entertaining. Now the series Tudors has introduced me to the Henry the VIII clan and my favorite character so far, Anne Boleyn. The idea of raising the bar on insults might just be the ticket to sounding off without repercussion (depending on the recipient), thanks for the tip!

  2. "Enclosed in clay" means "buried," per the Oxford Shakespeare notes. Per the Arden, "the dead with charity enclosed in clay" means "the dead given a Christian burial." Wikipedia gives information on the Non Nobis and Te Deum. As for insults, an excellent one for your arsenal comes from Richard III: "poisonous bunch-back'd toad." I do not know this out of any erudition, but because I have a coffee mug "decorated" with Shakespearian insults . . . and many, many more can be found at various websites. Once you start on this, be forewarned, it is endless!

  3. Check this out...

    Great blog RA!

  4. Many thanks to Jane M: with the pangloss link, courtesy of Jane M, no one need be without a Shakespearian insult a day!

  5. What a lovely blog post that was. I'm interested to read about your Shakespearean struggles. It all sounds very familiar. (And for me not made much easier, really, by having a father who was a Shakespearean scholar.) Ouff!

    Fortunately, by the time I got to Cambridge it was all Greek drama which I found fundamentally much easier to get on with.

  6. uneasy lies the curry not crowned

    with a head

    of garlic

    tell that to the muse!

  7. That was a very entertaining post, video clips and all, and the quest a familiar one to me.

    I, too, have been enjoying the Tudor series, and I enjoy Kenneth Branagh, and Judi Dench, in anything - Shakespearean or not.

    Also love the idea of those abstruse insults!


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