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The Game's Afoot, Henry V

By David G. Anderson

For the majority of people in the world the phrase, “The game’s afoot,” would be credited to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. They might be surprised that Shakespeare not only coined the phrase but that King Henry V expressed it at the conclusion of his famous “Once more unto the breach” speech in Act 3 Scene 1. Another title for this article could easily be “Good Henry, Bad Henry,” or “Presume Not That I Am the Thing I Was” (Henry IV Part Two, 5.5.59).

Henry V, arguably the finest of the history plays, has also become controversial during the last century. It lends itself, primarily by selective directorial cutting, to be an extremely patriotic play or a demonstration in warmongering and Machiavellianism. “Shakespeare presses on us the inescapable truth that when someone asserts ‘The game’s afoot’ there are many who, for various reasons, are preoccupied with their own concerns” (Anthony Brennan, Twayne’s New Critical Introduction to Shakespeare, Henry V, p. 54). George Bernard Shaw has described Henry as “a priggish and complacent warmonger and imperialist” (David Bevington, The Double Bind of The Garden of Forking Paths, p. 849). Conversely, various critics counsel of the dangers of analyzing anachronistically from a modern standpoint and deem Henry a credible model of conduct, military leadership, and statecraft. All concur “that Henry is either a golden hero or a ruthless thug” (Brennan, xxxv). In this play, Shakespeare’s viewpoints are unquestionably balanced and intricate. The contrast between emblematic appearance and political veracity extends from the rationalization of Henry’s French campaign to the state marriage of Katharine of France, “She is our capital demand.” Ultimately, “In this play we have to consider whether Henry’s conquest is a hunger for territorial ambition or pursued for England’s right and good” (Brennan, 54). We also need to factor in his father’s advice, “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” (Henry IV Part Two, 4.5.213–214).

The Chorus, a character who addresses the audience at the beginning of every act, ignites our imagination with chosen images, furnishing one interpretation of the play. Chorus’s stage setting is extremely jingoistic and functions more as a modern-day press agent for Henry. Trevor Nunn believes that the exciting myths and fictions the Chorus presents are deliberately set in contrast to the harder, cooler, more ambiguous events we witness in the play. Ralph Berry, interviewing Nunn, calls the Chorus the “Official Version,” a public relations strategy of over-protection for Henry played off against the play’s mélange of official and unofficial events (Changing Styles in Shakespeare, p. 49–58).

“Henry is brutally shrewd and shrewdly brutal” (Harold Bloom, Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human, p. 321). We witness his political acumen during the first two scenes. He has two objectives: first to legitimize the pending French campaign and second to fund it. It seems the Archbishop of Canterbury, threatened with legislation in Commons designed to take away the better half of the Church’s possessions, elects to parry with a counter proposal, suggesting the Church underwrite the French war. His lecture on the English claim to France not only demonstrates a self-interest, but also gives a very public justification for the war. Henry’s role-playing questions lend credence to his concerns regarding the legitimacy of his claim with the added benefit of receiving the Church’s endorsement.

“On the surface this scene seems to show Henry being carried along to war by an irresistible tide. Underneath we are allowed to suspect that this tide may be one Henry has helped to create by his unobtrusive arrangement of the events it contains: his allowing the Church to dangle uncertain of his protection of their interests; his awareness that the Church will offer him financial support for the war; his ensuring that the dynastic issue is fully outlined in public council; his seeming worry about the Scots invasion, which drives his nobles and churchmen to a further urging of war; his probable anticipation of a French refusal of his demands; his delaying of the reception of that message until it can come to reinforce the decision collectively made; his leaping on the Dauphin’s insult to provide his climatic peroration promising war” (Brennan, 31).

Through the indelicate cutting by directors, “the full articulation of these details is rarely available on stage” (Brennan, 31).

Act 2 Scene 2 further exemplifies Henry’s role-playing and theatrics; all designed once again to astonish his noblemen. The opening of the scene clearly identifies the traitors mentioned by Chorus. Henry artfully manipulates the traitors into condemning themselves. The conspirators were known enemies of Henry IV and envisioned an assassination of Hal, thus placing the Earl of March on the throne. Outwardly, French gold is blamed for the treachery. In reality Cambridge has a stronger claim to the crown, ironically utilizing the same argument Henry employed—succession through the female line. “Shakespeare does not present Henry as a figure who has buried all awareness that his crown is subject to dispute” (Brennan, 41). The moment the traitors read of their discovered perfidy, it is not Henry who refuses mercy but they themselves.

“Those who see the play as a patriotic aria regard Henry’s famous speech ‘Once more unto the breach’ in 3.1 as a high C” (Brennan, 49). Henry implores his weary charges, calling them “dear friends,” to “imitate the action of a tiger.” The Chorus’s assurance that ”down goes all before them” is grossly inaccurate since the king is sorely challenging his disheartened troops who are retreating from battle. Though this speech has been used for centuries in war-time recruiting, it was only semi-effective for Henry. In comparing it to the more famous “band of brothers” St. Crispin Day Speech, many actors use the first as a stepping-stone to the second. Alan Howard thought this first speech closer to conventional battle rhetoric, a tell that Henry was still somewhat distant from his men, hectoring them as a leader rather than drawing near them as a fellow soldier. He recognized, in the intimacy of the later speech, with its assertions of brotherhood, something that was lacking at Harfleur. It was Henry’s ability to identity with the desperate plight of his men, endowing him with the ability to forge his army into a unit and make the difference at Agincourt (Directors Notes, Stratford England production, 1975).

Agincourt Eve, Henry, in disguise, debates with his men and cruelly learns his role-playing as common man is very much lacking. The internal pressures of public rhetoric and the shaping of everything for public consumption is manifest in disillusionment. “It is the confirmation that he is utterly alone” (Kenneth Branagh, Jackson and Small, p. 103). The play’s seminal moment comes when Henry, devoid of audience, ceases his role-playing and earnestly prays. He asks God to buoy his men and dispel their alarms. “He uncovers his deepest fear that his army may be slaughtered on the morrow in payment for ‘the fault/ My father made in compassing the crown’ ” (Brennan, 78). The prayer’s underlying plea is liberation from the many ghosts haunting him, reminiscent of Kerouac with his, “Something, someone, some spirit, was pursuing all of us across the desert of life, and was bound to catch us before we reached heaven” (On the Road, p. 184).

Is Henry the epic hero defined in terms of mythic illusion as Mars the god of war with famine, sword and fire leashed to his heels, and the “mirror of all Christian kings”? Or is he the Machiavellian, manipulating politician who executed his rivals and former drinking pals—the commander who threatened the citizens of Harfleur with rape and pillage and ordered the slaughter of thousands of French prisoners immediately after giving all credit and thanks to God for his Agincourt victory? Shakespeare portrays each in his play, but directors have a challenging time presenting both. Henry’s “the game’s afoot” exhibits how Shakespeare’s plays consistently reveal the labile nature of man and his capability to protract paradoxical perspectives.


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