I was just re-watching the Henry V part of The Hollow Crown and was gobsmacked by the first scene, where the Archbishop of Canterbury plans to avoid taxes by convincing young King Harry to attack France.
Yeah, that’s what I said. I’ve watched/read this play multiple times and I didn’t remember that little chat.
This is no interpretation: the characters are quite clear–what matters most to them is stopping this bill (of new taxes on the Church); getting Henry V to attack France is simply the means to that end:
Ely. But, my good lord,
how now for mitigation of this bill
urged by the commons? Doth his majesty
Incline in it, or no?
Cant. He seems indifferent,
Or rather swaying more upon our part
For I have made an offer to his majesty,
As touching France, to give a greater sum
Than ever did at one time the clergy yet
Did to his predecessor’s part withal.H5, Act 1, Sc. I, lines 69-81
Nice. Yes, I had forgotten that the first conversation in the play was between two people contriving to manipulate the young king into a war in order to avoid taxes. Moreover, while this reasoning is also in Holinshed,* Shakespeare reverses Holinshed in terms of the Tennis Ball Embassy, where the Dauphin mocks Henry by sending him a “treasure” of tennis balls, which happens in Holinshed before the Archbishop’s justification of war with France, not after, as in Shakespeare.
In all, this makes a joke of Henry’s seemingly wise and circumspect warning to the Archbishop below about the evils of war before the Archbishop attempts to justify a war with France.
[Yagottalove “our sleeping sword of war”-perhaps the title for a documentary about how the American public was misled into a war with Iraq?]
For God doth know how many now in health
Shall drop their blood in approbation
Of what your reverence shall incite us to.
Therefore take heed how you impawn our person,
How you awake our sleeping sword of war;
We charge you in the name of God, take heed.
For never two such kingdoms did contend
Without much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops
Are every one a woe, a sore complaint
‘Gainst him whose wrongs gives edge unto the swords
That makes such waste in brief mortality.H5, Act 1, Sc. II, lines 18-28
Yeah, good King Harry’s not about to just jump into a war with France, … just watch what happens next.
After the Archbishop’s lengthy justification speech, which Laurence Olivier’s movie version rightly portrays as completely incomprehensible (sometimes even to the Archbishop himself), the Dauphin’s ambassadors come on stage with their treasure of tennis balls. This insult is the last straw, so now Dirty Harry’s gonna cross the Channel and beat the shit out of the Dauphin and his country:
… I will dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea, strike the dauphin blind to look on us.
And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore chargèd for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows
shall this, his mock, mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down,
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
So all it takes is an Archbishop who wants to avoid taxes coinciding with a stupid and admittedly very unwise mocking practical joke (which, remember, happened in Holinshed before the Archbishop’s speech) to start a full-fledged war with another country across the English Channel?[Yagottalove “mock castles down”-also a fine title for a book/short story/movie. About what? Misplaced rage? The rise of FoxNews?]
Granted, Shakespeare’s audience would probably have no problem with any of this, and still venerate the “fighting” and “proud” King Henry depicted here. Who the hell cares about the particulars anyway? The man on the Tudor street held no illusions about the moral/ethical justification for war: that’s the King’s problem, we’re just the King’s subjects.** Besides, wasn’t Agincourt awesome?? Dude.
Still, it seems strange to bother even having it in there at all. Why? To be historically accurate? Leaving things out was never a problem for Shakespeare, never mind the fact his sources weren’t accurate in the first place.
But this particular reference would have some powerful overtones for Shakespeare’s audience. Some 60 years earlier Queen Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII had done far, far worse to the Church by essentially taking everything away. I’m not referring to making England a Protestant country, but rather the wholesale looting and destruction of monasteries, priories, friaries, and convents that followed (much of the loot of which Henry VIII did indeed use to prosecute his wars). Unlike the mythical and distant battle of Agincourt, the “dissolution of the monasteries” would be something still very much in the living memory of Shakespeare’s audience.
Frankly I don’t know how Shakespeare’s audience would hear this opening conversation, but I doubt they would have seen these prelates as the laughable fops portrayed in Olivier’s Henry V. At this point, anti-Catholic tensions were high, and this Archbishop of Canterbury may have been seen as a conniving, money-grubbing sonuvabitch using big fancy words and convoluted “learned” arguments to start a war so he could stay rich. Or perhaps the complete opposite–the opening chat being a subtle and sad foreshadowing of a much later King who ruthlessly took much more than mere “taxes” but some of the institutions themselves?
Or possibly both?
* The events in many of Shakespeare’s history plays follow the Holinshed Chronicles. Indeed, sometimes Shakespeare uses the exact same descriptive phrases, such as here, where the Archbishop says the new tax intends to take “As much as would maintain, to the king’s honor / Full fifteen earls and fifteen hundred knights, / Six thousand and two hundred good esquires / And to relief of lazars and weak age / Of indigent faint souls past corporal toil, / A hundred almshouses, right well supplied; / And to the coffers of the king beside, / A thousand pounds by th’year.” Holinshed says the bill would “maintain, to the honor of the king and defense of the realm, fifteen earls, fifteen hundred knights, six thousand and two hundred esquires, and a hundred alms-houses for relief only of the poor, impotent, and needy persons, and the king to have clearly to his coffers twenty thousand pounds, … .” This is a very minor example, Shakespeare elsewhere lifts entire descriptive paragraphs from Holinshed.
** See, e.g., H5, Act IV, sc. 1, lines 131-134 (or Star Trek:TNG, S3E10, “The Defector,” as spoken by a disguised Patrick Stewart *not* playing Captain Picard, but rather playing the character Bates): “Ay, or more than we should seek after. For we know enough if we know we are the king’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.”