I’ve thought on this recording for several days, unable to wrap my head around it. Henry V gives me the same uneasy feeling as Merchant of Venice – the sense that it’s pitched for a very specific audience that no longer exists. Shakespeare takes a familiar popular theme and scrambles it, adding elements that appear to undermine the emotional thrust of the drama and leaving the Elizabethan audience (I’m taking a wild guess) with both the feeling that the requirements of the patriotic hero meme have been satisfied and the sense that their intelligence has been respected. Sophisticated, eyes wide open patriotism. Without that initial acceptance of the patriotic core – if we’re not able to walk in the door knowing in advance that Henry V is a national hero and ready to see the legend shaded, darkened, humanized (and not in a friendly way), where does that leave us? After all, for a 21st century American, Henry’s ancient fame is less that meaningless – the first step in connecting with the play is unattainable. It’s Lord Talbot all over again, except this time Shakespeare is playing a far more difficult hand.

Two great films have been made of this play – Olivier (1944) cuts the play and makes it a patriotic historical drama, leaving out the darker side and Branagh (1989) cuts and augments the play (the wager between Williams and Henry is gone, but we actually see the death of Bardolph) to offer a more human hero and a more realistic war drama. But neither are quite Shakespeare – both times there is a reach to a contemporary mindset that bends the play out of its original tone. Henry himself has been given the full hero portrait (Olivier) and at the opposite end, a fully humanized, accessible, likable portrait (David Gwillim in the BBC Shakespeare version from 1979). But Olivier’s Henry is a charismatic figure that drives the film forward and provides dramatic tension while Gwillim’s nice guy causes the play to cave in on itself.

In the Argo recording, Gary Watson as Henry, and indeed all the performers, provide precise readings that appear to communicate perfectly the poetry and the intricate tonal shifts of the play, and this leaves me – baffled and uneasy.

Or was that Shakespeare’s intent all along?

After the beautiful, soaring poetry of the Chorus, we watch two corrupt churchmen plotting to push the King into war as a distraction from potential anti-church policymaking. Henry reviews the openly unconvincing and pedantic argument in favor of his right to France and comes out with the firmly warlike statement “France being ours, we’ll bend it to our awe or break it all to pieces”, the position of a bully bent on conquest, and then uses an insulting gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin as pure shameless pretext for full-on war. Again, the Chorus tells us that Henry is going to go out in disguise the night before Agincourt to cheer the troops up, but what does he actually do? He tells them that in the opinion of one of their commanders they are about to be washed away on the next tide and proceeds to pick a fight with one of them. The cycle throughout is beautiful, exciting rhetoric followed by the equally energetic deflation of all comforting delusions. To the extent that this is Shakespeare’s dramatic statement on war, he comes off as deeply, forcefully, non-committal.

Henry V with Gary Watson, William Squire, Suzanne Fuller, Terrence Hardiman, Anthony White, Tony Church and Dudley Jones.

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