A Cheshire Smile:
Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies
Henry V: Heroic Comedy
and Considerations of Scale
Scale is always important in human affairs—big and little are among our earliest concepts as toddlers—but because it is so constantly at issue, scale is easy for us to forget in our analysis of what is right before us. Shakespeare’s greatness is often dependent on his refined sense of scale.
In consideration of Henry V, we need to have a refreshed sense of the scale of things in the Elizabethan London to which Shakespeare came as a budding poet-playwright. At the national level, there were always distractions centered in London and Whitehall. Among these were proposals of foreign marriages for Elizabeth in Sweden, in Germany, in France, in Spain. There were Elizabeth’s special and stormy relationship to the Earl of Leicester and her subsequent relationship to the Earl of Essex. There were plots and counterplots, all being adroitly manipulated by the Queen’s servant and spy-master, Sir Francis Walsingham. Deadly as many of these were, they were the small, momentary, daily stuff of national affairs.
At a much higher level had been the problem of Mary, Queen of Scots, the need for a French alliance to counter the seemingly invincible power of former long-term English ally Spain, the Pope’s continued excommunication of Elizabeth, and the like. These were the deeper levels of national reality which stirred London. But at the deepest and foundational levels lay realities like the Reformation, the social revolution and religious settlement of Henry VIII, and most recently and vividly, the Defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
For our purposes in considering historical comedy in Henry V, it is the Armada and Elizabeth as Queen of a nation-state England which is overwhelmingly important. So let us begin this chapter with a very odd and audacious concept that has very great relevance to Henry V:
The Defeat of the Spanish Armada was a grand joke.
Consider how the joke developed.
Spain has been riding high—very high. Spanish territory now includes Portugal, most of Italy, most of the New World, the Philippines, the Netherlands and Belgium (England’s close and special neighbors), and in a pinch, quite likely Austria and the Holy Roman Empire. Spain, in the defense of Catholicism, is ready to conquer England and to replace Elizabeth—ruling in her father’s middle way as the head of the Church of England—with the Inquisition and a Spanish prince.
It doesn’t sound very funny. But most jokes don’t start with laughs. This being a grand joke; it starts a long way from funny, and it is almost impossible to imagine any Londoner of the time laughing—yet.
The joke continues to develop in the exploits of Drake. Singeing the Spanish lion’s tail with the circumnavigation of the Golden Hind announces very clearly that the grim joke will not be curtailed, the enmity of Spain must harden, a confrontation which must determine the fate of Europe and the world becomes inevitable.
The joke is moving forward. It is moving deeper into seriousness. But at the same time, Drake’s successes along the Spanish Main and in the Pacific are beginning to touch London’s funny-bone. There is some very delighted laughter as England slowly awakens to the fact that there are chinks in Spain’s invincible armor, chinks that English naval character in particular seems custom-designed to exploit.
Yet by the mid-1580’s, intelligence reports show more and more conclusively—and even in small detail like number of cannons and cannonballs—that Spain, in all its strength and audacity, is putting together an Invincible Armada. Events in Belgium and the Netherlands, where England has been supporting revolt, are ominous; Spain has a 50,000-man army there to put down revolt, but the obvious use of that army is to invade and crush England first.
If there has been some delighted laughter at the Drake affairs, those laughs are quickly turned to anxious preparation. Drake and others launch pre-emptive attacks against Spanish staging areas, which meet with exorbitant success at Cadiz. Smiles reemerge, but the essentially dire straits of England just as quickly erase them.
When the Armada sails, the Spanish army in the Netherlands prepares to move to embarkation ports for the invasion of England. Nothing is funny. England prepares bonfires along its southern coast to relay information of the Armada’s approach. Ships are commandeered, commanders assigned, battle plans among the high command roughly agreed upon. The sovereignty of England lies in the balance.
Finally the Armada appears. In response, the first English ships set out from Plymouth, trailing the half-moon-shaped Armada formation, closing in when possible to try to inflict damage. As the Armada moves up Channel, more and more ports provide ships to the trailing English squadrons. The Spanish choose not to attack Portsmouth, and soon, with more damage to the Spanish than the English, the Armada strikes away from England toward Calais, the general embarkation area for the army.
No one is laughing; all ships from both sides are running out of ammunition.
And that night, the English send in their fire-ships.
The Spanish, who should have been ready, aren’t. Cutting their anchors to escape, they are swept into the North Sea, the English following. Some Spanish ships collide or suffer other damage; eleven are lost in a battle at Gravelines.
But much more important, now the unwieldy Spanish ships can no longer sail counter to the wind back to the embarkation ports for the invasion of England. The proud, seemingly invincible is being vanquished. Spain thought it was smart and potent, and Spain is getting got.
Smiles start to break out, first in the fleet, then in Kent, London, and the rest of Britain.
The English squadrons trail up the east coast of England, then return to port. The Spanish have no choice but to sail on around Scotland and then Ireland. For weeks, England receives intermittent reports of more and more Spanish ships on the rocks in northern Scotland or in western Ireland. People breathe easier; smiles appear and gradually broaden.
Somewhere along the line, the joke has reached its climax—probably considerably after Elizabeth addresses her land forces at Tilbury. The Armada has been defeated, defeated with enormous casualties. But no one knows exactly when that climax was reached; any laughter is tentative and subject to immediate annihilation on the smallest false report.
And when it is clearly well over, Elizabeth has a medal struck with the motto, “Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt”: God blew the winds, and they were dispersed.
It is the Defeat of the Spanish Armada—not the triumph of British arms, not the victory of Howard, Drake, Frobisher, and Hawkins, not in the Channel, not at Gravelines.
But the motto comes down to us-- belatedly. And the motto is the punch line. The Invincible Armada suffered one of history’s annihilating Gotchas, not at the hands of English sailors, but at the hands of a God who whistled for a wind. And they were dispersed.
In short, the grandest jokes have an occasional smile. But they are so protracted that it is easy to miss that they are jokes and to miss the punch line altogether. The joke structure, however, remains, and the joke structure is capable of overcoming lesser counter-structures. For example, the joke of the Defeat of the Spanish Armada as a grand Gotcha easily ignores the fate of thousands of English sailors who died, not under the guns of Spain but languishing afterward in ships in their home ports, devastated by disease, held prisoner by their own government to man ships “just in case” the Armada wasn’t really destroyed.
Scale makes enormous differences for humor as for the rest of human affairs. The grand joke structure of the Defeat of the Armada no doubt resulted in smiles or even laughs. But much more, it resulted in England taking on new resolve, being imbued with a confidence that marched through centuries and that almost deified its Queen.
And the grand joke of the Defeat of the Spanish Armada sets the stage for Shakespeare’s post-conquest Histories in general and Henry V in particular.
We turn now to Henry V, first as comedy, then as humor, a play in which Shakespeare deals triumphantly with scale as well as with the grand scheme of his Post-Norman English history plays, in which Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt act as the adumbration of Elizabeth and of the Defeat of the Armada.
Shakespeare’s structural design of Henry V is clearly different from that of any of his other plays, with the obvious purpose of announcing the heroic scale, material, and import of Henry V’s fate-shortened reign. The play is unique in having not one but five prologues: one for each of five acts of the play. The five acts themselves are episodic in character, each showing a different facet of Henry’s reign, and thus suggesting that five plays rather than one are needed to cover such heroic material— grand scope of material, in a play which comes to us entitled The Life of King Henry the Fifth.
Particularly the prologue to Act I highlights the structural import with extensive use of poetic terms demanding a sense of unlimited significance for the acts which follow:
O for a muse of fire, that would ascend
heaven of invention!
And monarchs to behold the welling scene.( I.i.1-4)
The vasty fields of France: Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt? (11-14)
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confin’d two mighty monarchies. . . . (20-21)
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance. . . . (24-25)
The scenes of Act I reemphasize the same large sense of scale, particularly in the role of the two churchmen, The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely. It is possible to play these two for laughs; high ecclesiastics have normally been subjects of satire throughout the ages. But at the same time, setting the stage with the Archbishop of Canterbury announces that our Prince Hal of Eastcheap is only the apprentice to King Henry V, whose every act is monitored by the highest and most politically astute clerics of the kingdom. And notably, the clerics have concluded essentially what Hal concluded in his earlier speech in 1 Henry IV I.ii.195ff: “I know you all, and will a while uphold/ The unyok’d humor of your idleness.”
Ely: The strawberry grows underneath the nettle,
And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best
Neighbor’d by fruit of baser quality;
And so the Prince obscured his contemplation
Under the veil of wildness. . . . (I.i.60-64)[i]
In scene ii, the huge scale of things articulately reasserts itself in the Archbishop’s interminably long—it starts at line 33 and only ends at line 95—argument on the inapplicability of Salic Law in France. The length of the speech alone argues for comic stage business with the pedantic archbishop as butt.
Yet the content of this remarkable speech is considerably more grand than its pedantic verbosity suggests, for it covers the whole of Frankish history from the last days of the Roman Empire through Louis the Tenth (actually St. Louis the Ninth, confused in Shakespeare’s Holinshed source, but in any case, in the 1200’s, a mere (!) 200 years before Henry’s time.)
Geographically, the argument holds that Salic Law barring female succession was designed for Germany, not for France, by Pharamond, who died in 426 A.D. Nor could later kings of France be used as precedents for the imposition of Salic Law on French monarchical succession.
So that, as clear as is the summer’s sun,
King Pepin’s [father of Charlemagne’s] title and Hugh Capet’s claim [against descendants of Charlemagne],
King Lewis his satisfaction [that he was a Carolingian through a female line as well as a Capetian], all appear
To hold in right and title of the female;
So do the kings of France unto this day. (86-90)
Henry’s reign, thus, is not only monitored by an archbishop, it is ruled by a grand conception of history and historical fact covering a northern European empire and extending back before the deposition of the last western Roman Emperor in 453 A.D. Scale is becoming immense.
This immense scale is of paramount importance to an understanding of Henry V. And if Henry V is a comedy, then necessarily the comedic import of Henry V must stand in some very definite relationship to the scale already imposed by Shakespeare’s structure before Henry’s first line and then, before his second speech, amplified with a late-Empire and early-Medieval history of Europe. This is very-large-scale comedy.
Also if Henry V is a comedy, we need to pay some special attention to why it is not a heroic-scale adventure story. As already mentioned, the structure of Henry V is episodic, and if episodic, it bears some likeness to the typical adventure story that moves episodically from success to success, yet without achieving comedic form, that is, the form of patterned success which can justify a faith in success or survival. Without doubt, the play moves from success to success: from Henry’s success among his lay and clerical courtiers to Henry’s success in the face of conspiratorial traitors and assassins, to his success as a field commander before Harfleur and encouraging his troops in the night before Agincourt, to his overwhelming success against French arms at Agincourt, to the wooing and winning of his princess bride. Submerged in such adventurous success, what can possibly be the underlying unifying, single success which is the comedic import of a heroic-comedy Henry V?
The answer is not hard to find, though moderns may easily miss the point. What each of the episodes of Henry V dramatizes is an aspect of the medieval conception of the ideal Christian king. Shakespeare is generally a conservative writer. He is never more conservative than here in presenting Henry living out ideal medieval kingship even in the waning days, historically, of such Christian idealism. Each act shows us a different facet of ideal medieval kingship.
Act I portrays Henry as Christ’s viceroy in England. As such, his actions must pass ecclesiastical review. Such a stipulation requires both that ecclesiasts be political and that politicos and kings be religious. Act I, scene i dramatizes the political nitty-gritty of the Church as a major land owner in England, responsible as such for a large number of knight-services per year, and accounting for the equivalent of many earls’ combined contribution for the safety and defense of the realm. Shakespeare got all the details from Holinshed. But the inclusion of such minute details is an artistic choice, specifically a choice to portray Henry with ecclesiastical-political realism but the realism of a practically worked-out ideal.
Scene ii, as already discussed, portrays Henry as concerned in the largest historical issues of European politics, issues requiring a scholarly knowledge ranging over a millennium of European history. It goes without saying that Henry is being true to his dynasty and its assertions with respect to France—it was, after all, Edward III who first quartered the English lions with the fleurs-de-lis of France on the royal arms, and thus Henry is the fourth English monarch to assert claims to the French crown. It is notable then that Shakespeare ignores for dramatic purposes this dynastic argument in favor of a much more scholarly ecclesiastical demonstration of England’s rights in France. As the Archbishop has already concluded about Henry, “Never was such a sudden scholar made” (I.i.30).
Scene ii, however, as is typical for Shakespeare, conveys much more than one matter of comedic import. It also dramatizes Henry the ideal Christian king presiding over a well-functioning, working court, that is, a court of seasoned nobles and experienced dignitaries putting their full minds, experience, and energies into the welfare of the state through their informed counsel, advice, and consent. In fact, in this scene, the comedic import of the play as a whole is virtually formally announced:
We are no tyrant, but a Christian king,
Unto whose grace our passion is as subject
As is our wretches fett’red in our prisons;
Therefore, with frank and with uncurbed plainness
Tell us the Dolphin’s mind. (I.ii.240-244)
Not only is Henry’s court a government of above-board, open, and frank discussion; Henry is also quite explicitly head of an extended family. When the French ambassador has been rebuffed in seeking a private audience, he presents Henry with “a tun of treasure”—an ironic, surprise insult from the Dauphin, the effective ruler of France given his father’s mental instability. In three words, Shakespeare makes the extended-family point:
K. Henry [to Exeter] What treasure, uncle?
And in two more words, he makes the additional point that this is a well-regulated, functional monarchical family:
Exe. Tennis balls, my liege. (258)
As so typically in Shakespeare, it seems that all that is happening is that the plot is progressing rapidly, the Dauphin virtually causing a war by his insolence. But at the same time, Shakespeare very carefully chooses just the right words, just the right approach to progress the plot and simultaneously build comedic import. It had been Henry’s father, Henry IV, who recognized the political value of referring to all members of the nobility as cousins. In Henry V, Shakespeare has the son consistently living up to his father’s sagacity with references to nobles as “cuz.” But in this exchange, the point is actually intensified because not only does Henry recognize all the nobility as part of his extended family, he is reverentially respectful within the family of the generation senior to himself and fully articulate in recognizing even closer relationships than the cousinship insisted upon by Henry IV.[ii] Exeter may be an uncle. He is also a loyal subject and a liegeman to his king under all the principles of feudal law. Henry is feudatory lord to magnates loyal by oath to his crown. In this cameo of an ideally functional court, the French ambassador should be perceptive enough to see what the Dauphin has clearly missed.
The scene continues to make rapid-fire additional demonstrations of ideal kingship, notably Henry’s graciousness extended to ambassadors. The Dauphin has committed repeated blunders that allow Henry to enter a war the Dauphin has thoroughly invited. The ambassador has already indicated that France will not seriously consider English claims to duchies in northwestern France. Henry has obviously proceeded cautiously by advancing merely such lesser claims rather than the claim to the French throne itself. The Dauphin, by so insultingly dismissing discussion of the duchies, only intensifies the argument for a direct claim to the French throne. Much more insultingly, the gift of the tennis balls essentially asserts Henry to be incompetent to rule England much less anything in France.
This is hardly a happy message for an ambassador to deliver. But Henry has the courtly grace to let the ambassador off the hook before going after his master:
K. Hen: We are glad the Dolphin is so pleasant with us,
His present and your pains we thank you for. . . . (259-260)
This, of course, is only the prelude for a devastatingly witty ex tempore rejoinder to the Dauphin. Elizabeth was similarly known for a graciousness that could turn with her temper to fiery wit.
After thoroughly expanding his rebuke to the Dauphin, Henry makes good on his insistence that his passions are as fettered as prisoners in a dungeon, providing physical security and ambassadorial privilege for the ambassador while coldly accepting the Dauphin’s challenge:
So get you hence in peace; and tell the Dolphin
His jest will savor but of shallow wit,
When thousands weep more that did laugh at it.
Convey them with safe conduct.—Fare you well. ( I.ii.294-297) [italics added]
It all seems natural in Shakespeare, a matter of court convention. But if it was a convention, Shakespeare certainly wants it to be a convention within the artistic pattern of his play, not outside it. It is convention that humanity far too often neglects, note the 2012 Libyan terrorist assassination of an American ambassador. Henry, on the other hand, repeatedly treats his adversary’s ambassador with gracious courtesy, yet another adumbration of Elizabeth, whose almost intimate relationships with more than one Spanish ambassador always complicate the story of Elizabeth, Phillip of Spain, and the Armada.
Perhaps most Elizabethans would expect the pattern to continue in Act II by the reintroduction of Falstaff at least for some cameo reprise. If so, they were disappointed.
The cameo appearance has, in fact, been reduced to a cameo report, in scene i, a report of his terminal illness and in scene iii, of his demise:
Boy, bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead. . . . (II.iii.5)
Falstaff and the life in Eastcheap are no longer relevant in Henry V. Associates in the tavern are now at best common soldiers, and like all common soldiers under a Christian king, subject to even-handed justice when they disobey orders and commit sacrilege to churches.
Rather, what is centrally important in Act II is the traitorous conspiracy to assassinate Henry, which is compressed into Act II, scene ii. Compression is everywhere evident in Henry V. Compression is necessitated by and simultaneously enforces the grand scope of the play as a whole, a scope so large that even the most harrowingly important events must be handled quickly and deftly. Because of the quick deftness, modern readers may easily miss the critical relevance of this conspiracy. After all, no harm is done, and the conspirators are almost off-handedly dispensed with.
What we as moderns may miss is that the chief conspirator, Henry’s first cousin, (known by his courtesy title, “Cambridge”), has a legitimate claim to the throne. He is the first son of the Duke of York and thus the representative of the next-junior branch of Edward III’s male family. He is also the husband of Anne Mortimer, great granddaughter of Lionel, Duke of Clarence and thus a representative of the senior branch of Edward III’s family, in fact, the branch which Richard II had recognized as his legitimate heirs to the English throne. Cambridge in this sense represents both the fifth and third of Edward III’s sons while Henry himself represents only the fourth son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It is this essential rivalry of claims to the English throne that eventually leads to the War of the Roses and the recognition of Cambridge’s grandson as Edward IV, the first Yorkist king.
The War of the Roses and Edward IV are still distant future in Henry V. But Henry’s handling of Cambridge’s conspiracy, though highly condensed, nevertheless reflects on Henry’s embodiment of ideal kingship in several ways. First, Henry is not caught unaware. No king should be. And because he is not unaware, he has for some time been living in the shadow of imminent attack. Ideal kingship takes sustained personal bravery.
In this case, it requires exceptional bravery, because Cambridge must be caught red-handed or else be left unchallenged and unpunished. Henry’s claim to the throne is far too fragile for him to execute a legitimate claimant to the throne on less than impeccable evidence. Even documents in Cambridge’s own hand are not enough—you can’t stop people, i.e. Yorkists, from saying, “Well, so what if he wrote that; he didn’t do anything, did he?”
Cambridge and friends must be allowed at liberty until the very last moment, until they have had every chance to do everything except the assassination itself.
Even compressed, the scene is highly suggestive of the political and rhetorical contortions that Elizabeth, Walsingham, and Lord Burghley routinely engaged in from the time Mary Queen of Scots fled to England until her execution 18 years later. It was repeatedly obvious in that period that Mary was involved in or cooperating with one conspiracy after another to destroy Elizabeth and to ascend the English throne, returning England to the papal flock. However obvious, as for example Mary’s attempts to marry England’s foremost peer, Henry Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, as part of a plot to overthrow Elizabeth, reasons of state always militated against pressing formal charges against Mary and having her executed.
Even when the Privy Council had irrefutable proof and had sentenced Mary to death, Elizabeth fought on to avoid signing and implementing a death warrant. These were major public realities of Elizabeth’s reign for almost two decades. Her subjects watching Henry V had developed a sophistication regarding the monarch’s need for caution, sustained bravery, and final judicious determination to thwart conspirators against the realm, no matter how closely related by blood to the monarch.
In the long run historically, Act II, scene ii of Henry V can be seen as failure. Henry did not manage to defuse the legitimacy issues which instead festered and resulted in the War of the Roses and the victory of the House of York. That is historical reality.
But the artistic reality within Henry V is that Henry does everything possible to avoid what ultimately became inevitable consequences. He even persuades Cambridge to admit his guilt and to make an extended confession. An ideal Christian king must be able to do everything that is possible for the good of the realm. After that, the ultimate direction of things is in God’s hands, not the king’s.
By the 1590’s, Elizabeth was doing everything that she could for the realm, which she found necessarily to include that she not take a husband and that she not settle the succession to the throne. It would take well over a hundred years after Elizabeth’s death for the succession to settle securely and dei gratia, by God’s grace, in the House of Hanover. Ideal Christian kingship is certainly not a matter of getting one’s way. It is certainly a matter of heroically and self-sacrificially doing one’s best.
Thus the first two acts have dramatized several characteristics of the ideal Christian king: he must pass ecclesiastical muster; he presides over a well-functioning court, treating his counselors as family; he is gracious to ambassadors, even those of his enemies; he responds to personal threats to his reign with courage, caution, and judiciousness and in the best interest of the realm rather than of himself.
And all of these portrayals have cast by suggestion a positive light on the reign of Elizabeth herself.
Act III, like the middle acts of a number of other Shakespearean plays, “brings on the clowns,” or what might sound more erudite, “makes a place for comic relief.” This is, after all, even the pattern in The Winter’s Tale, formally a very dark comedy.
Comic relief in Henry V comes mainly embodied in two groups of soldiers, one consisting of common soldiers formerly associated with Prince Hal at the tavern in Eastcheap and the other, four specialist captains of Henry’s army. The common soldiers are reprobate clones of Sir John Falstaff. The four captains represent four major ethnic and linguistic divisions within the British Isles. We consider these for their humor and for their comedic import later in the chapter.
The central scene of the act, however, is played in a different vein. Set in the French royal court, scene iv presents a delicately delightful portrayal of Princess Katherine. Recognizing that she is at the heart of negotiations with the English, she is attempting to learn vocabulary items in the English language from Alice, an old gentlewoman in her service. The entire scene has a droll undercurrent in that the French princess evidently believes that words like “fingernails”, “elbow”, and “neck” are of primary feminine importance in this endeavor to master the English tongue.
It should not be thought that scene iv is rightly a clownish scene. This Katherine of France is not a clown; she is part of the intricate system of feudal monarchical politics. Moreover, while historically, Henry V will have no heirs beyond his grandson, Katherine will indeed have heirs down to Shakespeare’s day: most notably her great, great granddaughter will be Elizabeth herself. Elizabethans could see the humor in Kate’s lessons from Alice, but it was wisdom to smile, not laugh, at that perception.
Questions of humor aside, the comedic import of the scene is to make blindingly obvious that ideal kingship (including lesser figures like heirs to the throne and nominated queen consorts) must submit private reality to state interest. Perhaps Katherine would prefer to be a Greek and Latin scholar. Private preference cannot stand in the way of her becoming trophy wife with appropriate emphasis on fingernails, neck, and elbow.
The later scenes of the Act propel the action by dramatizing the French reaction to Henry leaving Harfleur immediately after capturing it with his disease-ridden army for Calais, the fighting season already far advanced. It is reasonable to see the humor at French expense of the early scenes continuing in these later scenes, as, for example, when the duke of Brittany (the half-millennial adversary of the Norman-English ascendancy) can add to strategic discussion in the French Court only, “Normans, but bastard Normans, Norman bastards” (III.v.10).
While these scenes demonstrate some of the variety and richness of Shakespeare’s humor, a fuller discussion of which will be necessary, they simultaneously carry implications for the formal comedy of the play. A star-system approach to the play would lead us to think that the comedy resides solely in Henry himself—he, after all, being the ideal Christian king which is what the comedy is about. In which case, ideas like bringing on the clowns or making room for comic relief sound quite apt.
But, as we have maintained throughout, comedic form is the form of the dramatic work of art as a whole, not the form of an individual role. In Act I, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the French Ambassador, not to mention Exeter and the Bishop of Ely, have importance for the comedic import of Henry V as a whole. That is equally true for the minor characters who dominate Act III.
Here, the jokes against the French act as contrastive assertions, argue strongly for what a Christian king cannot afford to be. A Christian king, for example, cannot be swayed by long-held grudges and prejudices masquerading as currently sound strategic advice.
The tie-in between Eastcheap characters like Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol and war-leader ideal kingship may elude a modern conception of government. And the misunderstanding involved may have operated even earlier in 19th Century Shakespeare criticism that belatedly thought it realized that Harry was a war-monger barbarian. If Harry was a war-monger barbarian, it is at least fair to recognize that he came from an extremely long line of war-monger barbarian great grandfathers, stretching as far back as any British antiquity we know. For that matter, it is only fair to recognize that English royals centuries later were in the same business, as for example the Duke of York as commander-in-chief of British forces in the Lowlands in the early years of the French Revolution.
If Harry as king, ideal or not, was necessarily a war leader, a direct participant in battle himself, then any realistic envisioning of him as a medieval ideal king has to include the army he was likely to lead. Boy’s long speech in Act III, scene ii can thus be seen to characterize more than Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym (and behind them all Sir John Falstaff) but an entire, malingering segment of the army:
for indeed three such antics do not amount to a man. For Bardolph, he is white-liver’d and red-fac’d; by the means whereof ‘a faces it out, but fights not
and the like for his partners Pistol and Nym (31ff.).
An ideal king lives nevertheless in a real world, perhaps most particularly a militarily real world, and Shakespeare like virtually no other dramatist insists on emphasizing the Eastcheap realities of a significant portion of the army and the implications thereof for such an army’s regal commander.
In stark contrast to the Eastcheap trio stand the four captains, stalwart officers, men of enormous self-respect (which sets them up to be stock braggart soldiers). And as already mentioned, their diverse accents allow them to represent a vastly different reality of ideal kingship: an ideal king is not ideal because he comes from the same land, the same soil, the same ethnicity, or the same dialect group as the men he leads. Rather, the medieval ideal king is cosmopolitan, ready to move from one side of Europe to the other, and ready when he gets to that other side of Europe to lead men who differ from him in virtually anything which might be considered nationality.
It should not be thought that this is a unique or even a particularly exemplary characteristic of Henry V. After all, a century and a half after Henry, the “Spanish Empire” was ruled by Charles V, a boy who had grown up in the Low Countries, had then become king in Spain and later became Holy Roman Emperor of Germany. The Spanish king in Shakespeare’s day was also king of Portugal, king of Naples, and king of an American and Asian empire. In Spain itself, he held several independent crowns incorporating people like Basques and Catalonians (who were still contemplating independence in the 21st century).
The Austrian duke (starting with Charles’ brother Ferdinand) ruled directly over Czechs, Serbs, Hungarians, and Swiss before considering subjects within the Holy Roman Empire who might be high German, low German, or Italian, with no doubt some Poles as well.
The French king seems to have ruled mainly the French, but then the French are often confused with Parisians, the rest of the country differing widely in dialect even in the 20th century.
And Elizabeth’s own successor, James I of England, had previously been King of Scotland, and his mother had been both Queen of Scotland and Queen of France.
Given the great breadth of nationality, ethnic, and language groups a king might rule over, the four captains speak volumes about ideal medieval kingship just in their accents. An ideal king is not ideal because he is of the same stock as his subjects; he is ideal if he can command subjects of various dialect and ethnicity and excite their enthusiastic loyalty.
Similarly, Act III, scene iv has along with a very light humorous function, a major comedic function, that of dramatizing that Kate is a central player in medieval monarchical politics and thus, by extension, so is Henry, and so is any ideal royal. As central players, their marriage choices are of great political significance. Kate, like Henry, is also an adumbration of Elizabeth I. Kate and Henry marry, of course, while Elizabeth remained seemingly available for a seeming infinity of suitors. Yet their marriage choices were not self-indulgent, but rather in the service of their people.
The final three scenes of Act III are easiest to play as portraying a somewhat comic anti-ideal. The French are boastful, falsely self-assured, strategically befuddled, and unintelligently arrogant; they are repeatedly contrasted to England’s ordered court, that manifestation of ideal kingship dramatized earlier in Act I.
Thus while Act III does bring on clowns, does offer comic relief, and does demonstrate Shakespeare’s humorous virtuosity, each scene also adds to the patterning of the comedic import of the ideal Christian king.
Act IV will always be the “little touch of Harry in the night” act. The soldiers now on stage are dominated by the stalwart bowmen and men at arms who ultimately made Agincourt look deceptively easy. An ideal king has to lead riff-raff; he also must lead competent, specialized, often cantankerous, and more often rule-bound traditionalist officers, but in close battles throughout the ages, it is the Williamses, Bateses, Courts, and Erpinghams who buy the victory with their loyalty and courage and often with their lives. The ideal king inspires such men, often as in IV.i. by respecting their humanity and matching it with his own. That formula was, of course, very successfully employed by Good Queen Bess, down to her announced preference for small beer (the classic middle- and lower-class English national preference); Shakespeare has Harry imitate that preference in IV.i.
Probably the most controversial aspect of Act IV is Henry’s order to slay prisoners of war. The order is, of course, historical fact, not Shakespearean invention. It needs to be handled, and Shakespeare does so within an understanding that an ideal king makes mistakes. He is, after all, a human, not a divine viceroy and vicar. But if Henry made a mistake, it was a counter-mistake to an unchivalrous and equally historical French movement against defenseless boys in the English camp.
That thrust allowed Henry and the English forces to think that a broader counter-attack with fresh forces was under way. In such perilous circumstances, Henry’s forces having already been outnumbered three-to-one, killing the prisoners was within the standards of the 15th century a legitimate if loathsome decision in extremis. Among historians and military ethicists, the debate over this order will never end. Shakespeare does his best to present the reality in ways that do not destroy the comedic import he has worked so hard throughout to achieve.
Just as important dramatically, his decision to slay the prisoners has been set up by Henry’s meditation the night before battle which includes recollection of his actions to atone for his father’s murder of Richard II. A Christian king knows he is accountable to God and corrects wrongs where he can.
Act V presents Harry not only as the monarch at the matrimonial service of his country’s interest but also as a very human and repeatedly awkward wooer. The chivalric tradition required even kings to be first knights with exalted and idealistic expectations of themselves kneeling before the women they themselves have chosen. Even more is suggested in the scene: in a long tradition dating back at least to early Roman history and Cincinnatus, the ideal king moves decisively and swiftly from military prowess back to his plow and back to the purposes of peace at the earliest opportunity.
There is, of course, much more to say, particularly from Acts IV and V, about Shakespeare’s deft touches as well as his broad sweeps to portray the medieval ideal of practical, in-the-world Christian kingship and simultaneously to repeatedly point forward toward the blessings England enjoyed under Elizabeth’s reign. We, however, leave these to the reader to provide while we move on to issues of humor and humor texture for Henry V.
If Henry V then is the celebration of the possibility of international or even world-scale success and survival and perhaps even more of fame and glory through an ordered society directed by a humanly fallible but idealistically motivated medieval Christian king, cosmopolitan, inspiring yet humble, what more needs to be said about the affects of humor in such heroic comedy?
Obviously, Henry V, unlike Henry IV, is not finally remembered for its humor. At the same time, it is a “smiling play,” a play in which the audience’s good cheer is assumed (unless, of course, the audience happens to be French). Part of the good cheer comes from an episodic structure in which Henry moves from success to success. There is little if any time for plot complication much less for serious setback.
Less obviously, even with the demise of Falstaff, Shakespeare has provided a good share of “comic relief,” almost all of it after Act II. Some of his audience will no doubt be disappointed that Falstaff has not been allowed on stage, but his low-life antics are represented in his associates.
What criticism has not focused on is that Shakespeare has fashioned his play entirely around one huge-scale, grand joke and then five subsidiary, great jokes, one dominating each act. Because of the gigantic scale involved, these jokes hardly ever produce outright laughter. But just as a long joke may begin in high seriousness but eventually keeps the hearer smiling until the punch line, so Shakespeare’s huge jokes keep a smiling audience throughout Henry V.
The grand joke of Henry V is Agincourt, a colossal Gotcha on the French and particularly on the Dauphin, just as the Armada is a colossal Gotcha joke on the Spanish and particularly on Philip II. The grand joke of Agincourt begins with our sudden-made scholar, who is getting his legal ducks in order, being interrupted by the Dauphin’s ambassador. The Dauphin is too arrogant to play a waiting game, too eager to express his sense of infinite superiority to the bar bum who has inherited the British throne. He thinks, in short, a great deal more of himself than he ought. Among other things, he ought to have thought that the question of the “poor duchies” was an opening gambit requiring careful attention.
From there, of course, the joke will develop step by step, like the Armada joke, until an entirely too-self-confident and vastly superior French force is ignominiously ruined at Agincourt.
An English audience can be expected to laugh when it becomes clear how overwhelming the English victory has been, but the laughter is restrained by the French attack on the English camp and the killing of the prisoners of war. (An Elizabethan audience would recognize that killing the prisoners was bad business practice: they could have been held for a king’s ransom otherwise.) And the denouement of the joke is that even in total victory, Henry must accommodate to join the hopes of the House of Lancaster with the hopes of the House of Valois in marriage.
Despite the anti-climactic nature of the full joke, it is a joke, and the Gotcha against the French is as solid as the Gotcha against Philip II’s Spain.
Within this grand structure, the play can be seen as dramatizing five great jokes, one in each act: The Tennis Ball joke, the Conspirators Trapped joke, the French Vanity joke, the Strength in Humility joke, and the Abashed Wooer joke. As we shall see, these jokes taken together contain a number of Gotcha elements as well as other humor-of-the-mind joke forms. And like the grand joke of Agincourt, they often evoke smiles rather than laughter. Yet they retain their joke structures.
The joke in Act I, the Tennis Ball joke, is not the joke the Dauphin sends Harry but the trap-play joke of Prince Hal’s self-demeaned strategy originating in Henry IV, Part 1 and his association with Falstaff. This joke’s lead element is, of course, again Gotcha. But well underneath the surface, it has many incongruous facets: the respectful court of Henry compared to the raucously un-self-disciplined antics of the Dauphin, for example. Equally incongruous is the arduous pedantry of the Archbishop compared to the simple idea that Salic law is the law of Germany, not the law of France. These Incongruity elements are much more likely to produce self-satisfied smiles than to produce laughter. But they are the incongruities of smiles, not of consternation.
In Act II in the Conspirators Trapped joke, Cambridge and his associates think they are smart enough to conspire under Henry’s very nose at court. They too are got, though the seriousness of the Gotcha, especially in light of War-of-the-Roses consequences, would leave the English audience much more disturbed than laughing. Again, there is an underlying Incongruity, hard to miss and hard to laugh at, in a close, royal relative risking so much from such an exalted position. More laughable is the Incongruity of the ease with which Henry detects the plot and with which he lets the conspirators dupe themselves into a deadly trap.
In Act III, we return our attention to the French, the weaknesses of Henry’s strategic position having been made manifest: He is far from Calais; the fighting season is very far advanced; his troops are disease-ridden; he cannot afford even a day’s rest at newly-taken Harfleur; the French at Paris have his road to Calais outflanked; his troops include the riff-raff of Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol; his troops also include at least one high-ranking engineer who thinks that the middle of a battle is a good time to contentiously engage in disputations about deviations from the rules of war as laid down by the Romans 1500 years previously; AND the French always have Plan B, sending in a woman in the form of a marriage to Kate, to do a man’s work.
Yet when we finally see the French king and his court, we find them incapable of building on their strategic advantages and utterly given to self-promotion, ancient grudges, and an overweening sense of French innate superiority. Orleans has perhaps the emblematic line for all these French court ideas, “You have an excellent armor, but let my horse have his due” (3,7,4).
Here again we have Gotcha and Incongruity elements. But they are strongly reversed. We don’t see the French got yet, so it is only half a Gotcha joke, though the English audience is already enjoying the full joke knowing full well about Agincourt which is to follow. But the incongruities between the French and English armies are present and stark. On the one hand, the French strategic advantages are overwhelming. On the other hand, their overconfidence and pettiness stand in stark contrast to the humble English, but more to the point, laughably incongruous to what we would expect of a self-respecting army about to succeed: they boast too much too soon, and they put their trust in horses rather than in God. (This joke enjoys a reprise in Act IV, scene ii, when the Dauphin predicts that his horse will soar over all earth’s elements into the heavens). The French Vanity joke lifts English spirits and foreshadows ultimate victory at Agincourt. Were it not for the grand scale of the play and the magnitude of context, the scene would seem like standard fare from Saturday Night Live.
Act IV is dominated by the Strength in Humility joke, a joke which begins with “a little touch of Harry in the night,” moves through the king in disguise and the king in meditation, and culminates in the overwhelming victory in the morning. The joke emphasizes Harry’s, Erpingham’s, and Williams’ humility. It is ultimately the joke that it is the meek, not the arrogant, who will inherit the earth. It is also the joke that it is better to boast when one takes off one’s armor than before one puts it on. In short, the joke is a very old, wisdom joke with versions both in the New Testament Sermon on the Mount and in Old Testament history.
Here, we see a shift in dominant humor forms. Arguably the most pervasive form of humor here is irony, which we have considered as related to, yet distinct from, humor of the mind. Henry’s speaking of himself in the third person under the disguise of Erpringham’s cloak to unsuspecting soldiers creates both dramatic and rhetorical irony.
Taken line for line, Henry’s ironic encounters with his men employ Incongruity and Word Play, created by the misunderstanding of Henry’s identity. More broadly, the joke has Gotcha elements, particularly with respect to Williams who picks a quarrel with his king. But the way Shakespeare tells it, the human side of old Erpingham, the human side of Williams contemplating the awful reckoning incumbent on even the most Christian king, the human side of Harry admitting he’d do for a small beer—it is these human elements of the joke setting that remain indelible impressions. And what they accomplish is to make Sympathetic Pain a very major part of the greater Agincourt joke. We are not laughing sympathetically—irony itself tends to inhibit laughter—but by the end of the scene we have come to feel that Henry is like us, human, and that we know exactly how he feels because he has told us. As we have seen the human side of Kate, we here see the human side of Henry, and we are prepared for a full-blown Sympathetic Pain joke in Act. V.
At first blush, it might be thought that the great joke of Act V—set up in Act IV and sprung in Act V—is the glove joke. Following the reports of casualties, it is a welcome Gotcha played on Williams, who was too sure of himself with the King, and secondarily on Fluellen, who has become a tedious know-it-all. Yet like the snide insult of the Dauphin’s tennis ball gift of Act I, this practical joke is overshadowed by a far greater joke much more central to history and to the play’s comedic import: the Abashed Wooer joke, or the “embarrassed wooed” joke if you prefer. It is perhaps two magnificently congruous jokes told simultaneously. Gotcha is virtually absent, neither Henry nor Kate exhibiting over-confidence. Incongruity abounds—the victor down on his knee, the meek inheriting the kingdom. We smile sympathetically at the awkwardness and hesitancy evidenced even in royalty and after military victory: Sympathetic Pain has supplanted Gotcha.
It is well in considering all joke elements in Act V to see Henry as the grandson of John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward III. From an English perspective, that makes Harry “not all that much to look at.”[iii] In that light, Harry has come a long way, and Kate is preparing to descend a long way.
The abashed wooer, then, is perfectly right to be abashed. The embarrassed wooed is perfectly right to be embarrassed. She is, moreover, perfectly gracious—again an adumbration of her great, great granddaughter Elizabeth. (The subtleness of the Abashed Wooer joke, which essentially combines Incongruity and Sympathetic Pain, distinguishes it from the many, many bi-lingual jokes that begin to appear in Act III and are rampant in Act V. These are clearly laughable Word Play jokes and basically momentary.)
Summarizing the progression of the great jokes, we note that the Tennis Balls joke in Act I and the Conspirators Trapped joke in Act II are predominantly Gotcha and secondarily Incongruity humor. In Act III, the extended French Vanity joke reverses this order, depending primarily on Incongruity and secondarily on Gotcha. In Act IV, although irony bolstered by Incongruity and Word Play dominates the Strength in Humility joke, Shakespeare clearly lays a foundation for Sympathetic Pain. By Act V, Sympathetic Pain and Incongruity are dominant in the Abashed Wooer joke, and Gotcha has disappeared. As the five grand jokes of Henry V, there is a predominance of Gotcha and Incongruity humor at this level, as in the over-arching joke of Henry V as a whole, the incredible victory of the English over the French. Gotcha and Incongruity leads at these two highest levels make Henry V Crusader in humor personality.
These are the five great jokes of Henry V, not great in the sense that they will be told and retold in barbershops and stand-up acts, but great in the sense that their scope is large—not as large as the grand joke of Agincourt—but far larger than a clever line or a momentary humorous exchange. Yet, as we have noted earlier, Henry V, large scale as it is, does contain smaller scale momentary humor, humor which to some extent varies in form from the humor of the grand joke and of the five great jokes. That momentary humor is introduced in and concentrated in Act III.
Before turning then a second time to Act III, it should be clearly stated that we are introducing a second humor personality and tone criterion for Henry V. In discussing Henry IV, we argued that there are at least three or even four separate analyses of humor structure in 1 Henry IV leading to different dimensions of humor personality and texture based in Humor of the Mind, Humor of the Body, Langerian Humor of the Spirit and Bergsonian Humor of the Spirit humor sets. This multi-dimensionality is one of Shakespeare’s stupendous achievements in theatre. And now, in Henry V, he would make another huge advance, creating different dimensions of humor personality and texture not by employing different humor sets but by employing the humor set of Humor of the Mind on different scales. We have already shown how in five great jokes and an overarching single joke Shakespeare established a Crusader large-scale humor structure. We now return to Act III to consider the quite separate affect Shakespeare achieved by using the Humor of the Mind humor set for entirely momentary humor purposes.
In a very real sense, Act III introduces comic relief, comic relief within a large-scale, serious-minded heroic comedy. Traditionally, of course, comic relief has been thought of as the flickering candle amid the consuming darkness of tragedy. Yet there is much in non-tragedic theatre that can benefit from comic relief. Many formal comedies, particularly historical comedies, take up serious issues, and without comic relief, they could become lugubrious. Even harrowing adventure stories can be lightened a bit with humor. Within a variety of non-tragedic dramatic forms, momentary humor can provide relief from psychological tension, complicated plot development, intricate backgrounding, dubious chances of success, heavy or serious subject matter, and the like.
And, at the same time that such moments are obviously a relief to the audience, technically, they also build tension by putting off the resolution of serious matters for the moment. Such is the case with Henry V.
The exchange of the four captains in III. ii, which we previously discussed as adding to the comedic import in defining the ideal Christian king, at the same time provides comic relief for the tedious considerations of the legitimacy of Henry’s reign and to the dispensing of justice to conspirators. Kate’s English lesson from Alice provides relief from the harshness and ugliness of war. Both scenes seem incongruous to the grand scale of the play. Fluellen’s endless discourse over the Roman rules of war and Kate’s attention to the word for fingernails seem out of place, inconsequential, yet extremely human. They function like the rhetorical devise of suddenly dropping the level of usage, bringing an abstract discussion down to a nitty-gritty level, and simultaneously bringing a laugh. The final scene of Act III, reveling in French overweening pride, provides even more comic relief as well as comic assurance that the battle is in fact already won and to the victors belong the laughs.
This revel dissolves quickly into Act IV and the night before the battle, but the relief jokes—Fluellen’s obsession with classic rules of war, dialectic differences and language gaffs, French vanity—will reappear in Act IV with similar effect.
Scrutinizing more carefully the individual scenes of Act III, we should recognize that in scene i we meet again the compatriots of Falstaff, but almost all the fun of Falstaff has been suppressed. Falstaff was vital in 1 Henry IV. He was degraded in 2 Henry IV. He became an outrageous butt for two middle-class women in Merry Wives of Windsor. Finally, In Henry V, he is not even allowed on stage.
Yet his humors enjoy a faint Indian Summer, whose main artistic effect within the grand design of the Post-Conquest Histories is to make clear that Falstaffian humor has no positive relationship to the ideal kingship comedy. The Over-Ripe and Decadent Vitalist humors which are funny in 1 Henry IV work themselves out in Henry V not only in Falstaff’s death but in the death and humiliation of his associates. Talented acting and directing can find ways to generate humor from the Eastcheap characters, but if the humor does not denigrate them and set them up for serious judgment, it will not be consistent with the overall pattern of Henry V and the two parts of Henry IV as well.
In contrast, the Four Captains are much more vitally alive, much more directly related to comedic import, and on a momentary basis much funnier because of national-character and dialectic differences. The Four Captains remind us that the Brits are a special breed of non-conformists with instantaneously funny accents to boot. In their scenes, the dialect and other linguistic dissimilarities of the Captains are superficially fun and funny in and of themselves and easily accessible as Word Play humor by modern audiences. (Fluellen’s Welsh dialect will bring more comic relief in Act IV, scene vii when he calls Alexander the Great,”Alexander the Pig” (13).) However, the Incongruities of national character, which were no doubt easily understood by Elizabethan audiences, are not so apparent to modern audiences; the actors and director must work to bring these laughable Incongruities forcefully to the consciousness of the audience. The combined humors, Word Play and Incongruity, transform Act III into an Intellectual interlude, itself a relief from the earnestness of the Crusader humor (Gotcha and Incongruity) of the first two Acts.
In the Kate scenes, also, Incongruity and Word Play provide ready laughable humor at the momentary level. English audiences will no doubt delight in the French twists Kate gives to earthy Anglo-Saxon words as well as in Alice’s assurance that her pronunciation is perfect! We have already noted the Incongruity of her attention to body parts. At the same time, the scene introduces an element of Sympathetic Pain. We smile with her, recognizing that life is about to turn her world upside down and that her linguistic mistakes are made in the spirit of gracefully making the best of it. The Word Play of mispronunciation will resurface in a different spirit in IV, iv as Pym massacres the French language in order to extort payment from a French soldier. In this case his dishonorable entrepreneurship, reminiscent of Falstaff, evokes only distain.
The Intellectual humor of Act III enjoys a reprise in Act IV, heightened by the irony of the king’s inadvertent disguise.
Act III’s switch of momentary humor, thus, away from Gotcha and toward Sympathetic Pain creates its own separate texture of the act.
As we noted in Chapter 4, Word Play can create a razzle-dazzle effect. Though the text does not require it, it invites playing the Four Captains scene for a brief but sparkling effect. But more to the point, Intellectual humor tends to be detached, emotionally disengaged. Such detachment can be indeed a relief from the emotional engagement of gearing up for war, from the mental engagement of arguments for Henry’s claim to the throne, and the judicial engagement of dealing with traitors. Intellectual humor can even be relief from the earnestness and judiciousness of Gotcha humor itself. It is a relief to be allowed to disengage our emotional loyalties and just enjoy in a nonjudgmental way the incongruities and linguistic play of these scenes.
But Act III also introduces Sympathetic Pain. Sympathetic Pain humor, we noted in Chapter 5, is a mature humor, creating a texture of inclusiveness, mercy, and gentleness. Such humor texture provides additional relief from earnestness and judgmentalism. But more importantly, an inclusive, merciful texture hints at what is yet to come, a battle won from meekness, a bride won from humility. It prepares the audience to respect and embrace the humble Harry of Act IV and in the final act to welcome Kate not as the spoils of war but rather as a graceful and worthy wife to an ideal Christian king.
The final scene of Act III, as already noted, develops the great joke of the act, the French Vanity joke, which heavily emphasizes Incongruity and insipient Gotcha. It is here that the laughter of the grand joke of Agincourt is allowed full expression, here that the English audience can with all earnestness indulge in laughing to scorn the proud French who are doomed to be defeated and destined to cede their princess to the English court. This scene, through small-scale humor as well as through plot, transitions us back to the battle itself, to the great issues of history, and to the working out of the grand Gotcha of Agincourt. But in Act III, Sympathetic Pain has been introduced, first on a small scale, and thus preparing us, even while we scorn the enemy French, to respect Kate as the soon-to-be consort to Henry, to respect the humanity of Henry in Act IV, to smile sympathetically at the Abashed Wooer joke of Act V as Kate and Henry endure the agonies of cross-cultural and cross-lingual approachment.
From the broader perspective then, the humorous sequence of Henry V, which forms a great Gotcha at the grand level, moves from Crusader (Gotcha and Incongruity) in the great jokes of the first two acts, to Intellectual (Incongruity and Word Play) in the momentary humor of Act III, as well as the introduction of Sympathetic Pain, back to Gotcha at the end of Act III, but then turning to Reconciler (Incongruity and Sympathetic Pain) (with more than a little touch of irony) in Acts IV, ending with that distinctive Shakespearean gentleness of Reconciler (Incongruity and Sympathetic Pain) in Act V.
Thus at the momentary humor level, Henry V moves relentlessly forward from Crusader to Intellectual to Reconciler. None of the comedies we have considered in these studies shave a wider patterning among various humor personalities. Yet, despite the Reconciler ending, the overall central humor character of the play, based in the amount of time and attention paid to its very large jokes, is Crusader. Henry V is, after all, the story of the Crusade to Reclaim France.
If Crusader is the overall humor personality of the play, what is the accompanying texture? We have already described the humor of the first two acts as earnest and judgmental. In Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle, we argued that the texture of Crusader humor is of rectitude and uprightness. Gotcha humor is grounded in a sense of justice, Incongruity in a sense of truth; Crusader humor champions truth and justice. In contrast to Henry IV, Part 1, where Advocate humor (Gotcha and Word Play) reinforce the play’s advocacy of Hal’s fitness for the throne, in Henry V the humor is much more driving even if subtle. Crusader humor champions the truth and justice of his kingship: the truth and justice of Henry’s claim to the throne, of his claim to France, of the English way of doing things, and finally of Henry’s reign as an ideal Christian king. And Henry, Hal, the former denizen of Eastcheap, is here clothed in earnestness and rectitude and uprightness.
For most of the play, we smile, with a certain buoyancy, in appreciation of such rectitude. It’s good to be on the side of the just, the smart, the winners. But in the final scene of Act III, the Crusader humor sense allows us to laugh heartily. Anybody who brags about loving his horse above his mistress deserves to get got—and deserves, we feel, to be laughed at in all rectitude and rightness! We (the English!) laugh freely at the overconfident, taunting French enemy, the enemy destined by its own defeat to validate Henry and the English way.
But rectitude and rightness will take us only so far. It will not lead us to the reconciliation of Act V. For that we need Sympathetic Pain, growing from dim beginnings in the Kate and Alice scene in Act III, moving through Acts IV and Act V, building the texture of Reconciler, of inclusiveness and mercy necessary for the play. Act V is anti-climactic to the grand Gotcha joke of Agincourt and the play’s overall character of Crusader. The victory lap for that grand Gotcha occurs in the prologue to Act V. Yet it is typically Shakespearean, Gentle-Will Shakespearean, to modulate into reconciliation and the Reconciler texture of maturity, inclusiveness, mercy, and gentleness, as indeed all medieval ideal monarchic politics was intended to do.
The grand joke of Agincourt and its five subsidiary great jokes are immense in scope and, like the joke of the Armada, they are of such scope that the expected humorous response of laughter is very seriously compromised. The joke structures are there, but inhibitors to laughter abound, and a “smiling play” affect (suggested by Jean Anouilh in his concept of Pièces roses as opposed to Pièces grinçantes) is its fundamental achievement.
We have entitled these Shakespearean essays, A Cheshire Smile, with reference, of course, to Alice in Wonderland and the cat who disappears before our very eyes until only the smile remains.
Henry V is perhaps the finest example in Shakespeare of a Cheshire Smile play, a play which has balanced humor and comedy throughout for smiling rather than laughing responses. In the long-run appreciation of the play (that is our appreciation of the play after leaving it for a significant length of time), it is the smiling feel that remains when all else has disappeared. Henry V is so quintessentially of this character that whenever Britain is deeply troubled, particularly whenever it is deeply troubled militarily, Henry V immediately comes to mind as the appropriate British response to such challenge.
But what is true of Henry V is also clearly true for the entire Shakespearean comedic canon: there is something that remains long after we have forgotten most of the plot and most of the characters of the play itself. There is, in short, a personality and a tone that remain, and it is basically a smilingly humorous remainder.
We remember for Henry IV the sense of strong, irreverent advocacy. We remember for As You Like It a flashy, hard-finished urbanity in praise of an Arcadian ideal that ultimately makes intellectual room for both. We remember for Much Ado about Nothing a witty war of the sexes that is consoling as to the way of the world and as to the tormented delights of heterosexual relationship. We remember for Comedy of Errors a fast-paced, tour-de-force romp that nevertheless leaves us with a strong reconciled sense that the deepest issues of being human, being related, and being mystified by the world have all been profoundly explored and brought to a happy nativity. And we remember for Midsummer Night’s Dream, an evanescent bridge built between the vanity of human affairs and the vanity of pagan deities run amok in their own affairs.
All this is perhaps most clearly the case for Midsummer Night’s Dream and for Henry V. In the latter case, of course, Shakespeare moves to a Cheshire Smile finale while writing some of the most heroic speeches in literature.
The greater the material, the more profoundly Shakespeare immortalized it not just with comedic import but also with rich humor texture and personality. “How frail the wand, but how profound the spell.”
i Ely emphasizes the “veil of wildness” which much criticism since has applied to Prince Hal without the full metaphor and thus accuses him of a wild youth. Henry IV doesn’t really portray Hal as wild; it does portray him as making himself commonly available to his people. Henry V will continue to portray Hal as available, which is one of the ways that King Henry V is an adumbration of Elizabeth. As Elizabeth’s biographer, Allison Weir has said:
In an age of personal monarchy, it was important that the monarch was on show as often as possible, and Elizabeth ensured that she was highly visible, traveling on annual progresses, riding out frequently through the streets of London, or being rowed in her state barge along the Thames ( 220). [Return to text.]
[ii] Henry IV’s insight remains in effect in Britain even today, where all peers are called to Parliament with formal notes addressed to “cousins,” “Our right trusty and well-beloved cousin” for earls up to “Our right trusty and right-entirely-beloved cousin” for dukes. And thus Henry V’s practice here is yet another adumbration of England’s and Elizabeth’s well-functioning, extended-family court practice. (“Cousin” in The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 269.) [Return to text.]
[iii] It is the same perspective that considers William Marshall (later Earl of Pembroke and surety baron for Magna Carta) to have started out as a “poor knight”—he was only the younger brother of the Earl of Salisbury. It is the same perspective that considers Catherine Swinford the daughter of a poor knight named de Roet (and a foreigner no less) while modern genealogists trace Catherine’s ancestors back to Charlemagne. [Return to text.]
Related works in ITCHS: The Irrepressibly Complex Falstaff: A Humor Structure Analysis of Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I.