So, Henry V and I got off to a rough start because I have come to hate the title character with the intensity of a gamma ray burst (see: previous review seething with rage and confusion). Even though the young king managed to pull his head about one millimeter out of his ass in this play, he is still just such an unrepentant dog fart.
That's a pretty lazy excuse for a land grab. It bears mentioning that Henry does have a very weak and convoluted claim to the French throne, but it's too stupid to indulge. Basically, he has a raging war boner, so sorry peasants and soldiers, a bunch of you are going to be crow food. And then after that, crow poop. Address complaints to: the corruptive effects of monarchic power.
We get a disturbing glimpse into the peasant side of the war through the eyes of Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph, the ne'er-do-well gang that King Henry used to hang out with back when he was Prince Hal. It's kind of a continuity error that they are hanging around London, since Henry banished them at the end of Henry IV: Part II. No script supervisor on this tetralogy, apparently.
But what's even stranger is that Falstaff, their ringleader and Henry's one-time mentor, is so heartbroken by Henry's abandonment of him that he unceremoniously dies offstage. "His heart is fracted and corroborate," according to his friends. That's right: Henry V didn't just tap Falstaff's heart, he fracked it. Asshole level: Koch brother.
It's weird that such a beloved character gets such a blow-off death, and it's also a bummer to imagine the interminably jolly Falstaff dying of a broken heart. Of course, when Henry hears the sad news, he wistfully reminisces about all the fun they had together, completely ignoring the fact that his sadistic public shaming of Falstaff is what killed him in the first place. Oh my God, Henry. Your brain is a potato.
Anyway, the void of comic relief left by Falstaff is enthusiastically filled by every French character in this play. They all act like the taunting French soldier in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. For example, when Henry tells them he wants France, they send him a giant chest of tennis balls, to highlight that they think he is a dumb kid who should stick to low-stake games. The French Dauphin says, "As matching to his youth and vanity/ I did present him with the Paris balls." Mon Dieu, the Paris balls? How droll!
The amazing anti-English insults only intensify when Henry has some initial success by capturing Harfleur in Normandy. When the French leadership is informed of the victory, this is their mature and measured response:
Bourbon: Normans, but bastard Normans, Norman bastards!
Mort de ma vie! if they march along
Unfought withal, but I will sell my dukedom,
To buy a slobbery and a dirty farm
In that nook-shotten isle of Albion.
Constable: Dieu de batailles! where have they this mettle?
Is not their climate foggy, raw and dull,
On whom, as in despite, the sun looks pale,
Killing their fruit with frowns? Can sodden water,
A drench for sur-rein'd jades, their barley-broth,
Decoct their cold blood to such valiant heat?
And shall our quick blood, spirited with wine,
Seem frosty? O, for honour of our land,
Let us not hang like roping icicles
Upon our houses' thatch, whiles a more frosty people
Sweat drops of gallant youth in our rich fields!
Poor we may call them in their native lords.
Dauphin: By faith and honour,
Our madams mock at us, and plainly say
Our mettle is bred out and they will give
Their bodies to the lust of English youth
To new-store France with bastard warriors.
Here I will grudgingly admit that Henry responds with admirable cool to the repeated insults of the French. For example, he tells the French ambassador who delivered the tennis balls that he would turn "his balls to gun-stones," which is one of his many badass lines in this play.
Along those lines, I will also acknowledge that Henry knows how to lay down a show-stopping motivational speech, though I would not count the famous, "Once more unto the breach" one among them. You know what his full line is there? "Once more unto the breach, my friends/ Or close the wall up with our English dead."
If there's one thing I do not want to hear as an English soldier, it's any variation of "wall of English dead." The rest of the speech is okay, but kind of predictable. Henry says they should be like tigers and greyhounds and that they should all "set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide." It's like, dude, you're telling your soldiers what to do with their noses? Take a long hard look in the mirror, you micromanaging maniac.
However, Henry does deliver a truly exceptional speech later in the play, right before the climactic Battle of Agincourt. The whole passage is worth reading, but the upshot is really at the end:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Henry has been wandering through his camp in disguise, chatting up his soldiers, so he has seen firsthand how discouraged everyone is, and how imperative it is for him to lift their spirits. The speech is perfectly calibrated for that, and it delivers dope results: in spite of the incredible odds against them, the English win decisively at Agincourt. This inspires some more crazy, melodramatic lines from the French captain Bourbon, who runs away from the battlefield screaming:
Shame, and eternal shame, nothing but shame!
Let us die. In once more! Back again!
And he that will not follow Bourbon now,
Let him go hence, and with his cap in hand
Like a base pander hold the chamber door,
Whilst by a slave, no gentler than my dog,
His fairest daughter is contaminate.
Wow, you know a victory is complete when the losing side is rambling about daughterly contamination. What a surgical choice of words there, Bourbon, you madman. Anyway, the main conflict of Henry wanting France is now resolved because he totally just stomped on in and took it, and it should be a pretty good setup for a happy ending. Right?
One million nopes. Just because Henry was slightly smarter in this play does not mean he is even close to redeemed as a character. He is still the epitome of canine flatulence. EXHIBIT A: he inherited that whole "heavy is the head that wears the crown" bullcrud from his father, and he constantly whines about how being king is so much harder than being a peasant or soldier. Check out this little nugget of insufferable martyr complex:
King Henry: Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer'st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
Note that he compares himself to a god yet again, paragon of humility that he is. This ridiculous speech goes on for ages, and culminates with him echoing his father's sentiments about kings having it worse than slaves:
The slave, a member of the country's peace,
Enjoys it; but in gross brain little wots
What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.
SERIOUSLY, HENRY?! The slave and peasant are enjoying the peace that you have to work so hard to keep? First of all, what the hell is he talking about when he says he is keeping peace? This whole play is about how he started an incredibly costly war, and he was beyond lucky that it all turned out in his favor.
But even ignoring that, what is with this dynasty's delusional belief that life is tougher for at the top of the social ladder than at the bottom? Let's save ourselves some time and agree that if a person can't wear the crown without whinging about it constantly, then GTFO and make way for someone with a stronger neck. Go be a slave, since you think that lifestyle is so simple, comfortable, and fulfilling. Get back to us on that.
But of course, Henry's total lack of self-awareness only gets more egregious as the play goes on. EXHIBIT B: despite his never-ending complaints about monarchic responsibility, he evades culpability for his decisions at every turn. When he sieges Harfleur, for example, he gives this big long speech about all the messed up crap his army will do to the town's citizens if they don't let him in. He emphasizes that their beautiful maiden daughters will be raped, and that babies and old dudes will have their heads bashed against walls. Real classy.
But the kicker is, he presents all of this as if Harfleur's leadership will be at fault for not surrendering to the English. "What is ’t to me," he says, "when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand/ Of hot and forcing violation?"
WHAT ARE YOU, CRAZY? I get that this is an extreme negotiation strategy, but it really ties in to Henry not believing himself to be accountable for any of the atrocities his men commit—or, for that matter, any of the atrocities committed against his men. For example, later, when he walks around his camp incognito, he lectures his soldiers for having legitimate doubts about the conquest. "The king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers," he says. "Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own."
One billion nopes. Bardolph and Nym end up getting the Falstaff treatment—they are executed offstage for looting a French church. Pistol, meanwhile, finds out his wife died of venereal disease and that he has no option but to return to his desperate life in London's underbelly. It is almost laughably dark, how these characters end up. The play tries to shrug it off as if they deserved such cruel fates because they were degenerates, as if Henry isn't Thief-in-Chief for invading France in the first place. Steal a relic: death. Steal a country: glory.
Improbably, Henry actually acquires new heights of horrible in Act V when he tries to "woo" (I use the term loosely) Katherine, the princess of France. It is pretty much the most embarrassing seduction attempt I have ever seen, and I've been to the Red Pill subreddit. Just...see for yourself:
King Henry: O fair Katharine, if you will love me soundly with
your French heart, I will be glad to hear you
confess it brokenly with your English tongue.
Do you like me, Kate?
Katherine: Pardonnez-moi, I cannot tell vat is 'like me.'
King Henry: An angel is like you, Kate, and you are like an angel.
IS HEAVEN MISSING AN ANGEL, KATE? Katherine doesn't speak English well—thus the cheesy accent—but she might legitimately be dumbing herself down because she is so appalled at Henry's utterly horrendous advances. No such luck, poor Kate. I'm afraid the pickup lines only go downhill from there:
King Henry: If ever thou beest mine, Kate, as I have a
saving faith within me tells me thou shalt, I get
thee with scambling, and thou must therefore needs
prove a good soldier-breeder: shall not thou and I,
between Saint Denis and Saint George, compound a
boy, half French, half English, that shall go to
Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard?
shall we not? what sayest thou, my fair
Uh, way to call your future wife a "soldier-breeder," you reverse-Lothario. I can not believe he straight-up tells her that he wants a bunch of his baby soldiers to burst out of her vagina and trample all over other people's countries the way he trampled all over hers. "Take the Turk by the beard"? Yuck. Medieval flirting is so messed up.
After that, he kisses Katherine, despite her ardent attempts to avoid it, and then he reassures her she will be lucky to have a husband as ugly as him, because it means his looks won't fade as he ages. Worst marriage proposal ever.
It bears mentioning that I don't have any strong feelings against the historical Henry V, who seemed like a pretty shrewd leader. That said, let me proclaim that I am so glad Shakespeare's version of Henry is headed for a fatal case of dysentery two years after the action of the Henriad. That seems like an appropriate fate for a character this full of shit.
Worst Military Strategy: Early in the play, one of Henry's advisors tells him that "there's a saying very old and true/ 'If that you will France win/ Then with Scotland first begin.'" I get that the saying has to do with the delicate balance of power in northern Europe, but when I read this all I could think was "wrong direction, ya idjits."
Most Bioshock Quote: At one point, Pistol says, "Base is the slave that pays." Worth noting for its simple badassery.
Best in Icelandic Show: Pistol is not always so eloquent. While arguing with Nym, he yells, "Pish for thee, Iceland dog! though prick-ear'd cur of Iceland!" Wow, real creative. It's also worth noting that Nym responds to this by asking, "will you shog off?" <---- Let's bring "shog off" back, it's wonderful.
Most Delusionally Grandeur'd: Falstaff's squire, known only as Boy, runs around with the Pistol gang in the play. At one point, he says "I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety." What fame, dude? Shakespeare couldn't even be bothered to give you a name. No ale or safety for you.