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Once More
Unto the Breach


“Once more unto the breach.”

This quotable quote from the middle of Henry V is an apt motto for the play itself.  Kenneth Branagh’s epic film brought Shakespeare back onto the screen and enlivened this difficult play and each experience of a performance is a plunge into the heart of it.  The play makes a lot more sense in performance than on the page.  There are over 40 named characters.   Many would have been doubled in Shakespeare’s company (as they are here).  Visual cues and distinct personalities help to distinguish the characters.  Still, there is quite a bit of English history embedded in the play.  Although the play telescopes about five years of war into what seems like a few days, the events are largely true, as reported in Holinshed’s Chronicles.  The English were, indeed, outnumbered by the French at Agincourt, and successfully settled the peace with Henry’s marriage to Katherine.  But, as the Chorus reminds us at the end, this peace would be short-lived.  England would lose France under Henry VI (an infant when he took the throne).  Of note, Shakespeare had already written the Henry VI plays. 

Henry V begins shortly after Prince Hal (as he was known in the Henry IV plays) has taken the throne, and he is deciding whether or not to invade France (a popular pastime for kings of England and something his father had hoped to do).  He seeks an endorsement of his claim, and so he asks for an interpretation of the Salic Law of France.  Fortunately for the audience of this performance, the director decided to eliminate the complicated first scene between the bishops of Canterbury and  Ely.  In this long-winded scene, the audience learns about the greedy machinations of the Church (still Catholic at this point in England’s history).  To English Protestants this would have been a bit of delicious mockery, but for us, it adds a layer of confusion.  Henry’s decision turns on disputing the French claim to follow the Salic Law that prohibits inheritance through the mother’s bloodline.  This law originated in an area of Germany, conquered by the Holy Roman Emperor , who then promoted intermarriage of French soldiers with the local women – but wanted to prevent the women from gaining power through inheritance.  France eventually claimed this law for its royal succession.  Henry’s claim to the throne dates back about 75 years (to Edward’s claim to the throne by way of his French mother).  The events recounted in Henry V are part of the period now known as “The Hundred Years’ War.” 

King Henry V receives the reading he wants to hear from the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The Salic Law only applies in Salic Lands – not in France.  As if Henry needed further reason, a messenger from the Dauphin of France (the crown prince) arrives with a “mock” tribute – tennis balls.  While the Dauphin is himself a bit too cheeky (and will pay for this dearly), the French mockery is not without reason.  The English audience would be familiar with Henry’s reputation as the crown prince.  He ran with a wild crowd, including John Falstaff (one of Shakespeare’s dearest characters) and the Eastside Cheaps who appear, and slowly disappear, in Henry V.  He was a prankster and a light-hearted troublemaker.  Once he is crowned, however, he distances himself from the old crowd, and in one of the first scenes of Henry V we learn of Falstaff’s death – of a broken heart.  Eventually, Bardolph and Nym will be hanged under edicts issued, and ultimately endorsed by King Henry.  There is a certain ambivalence in the king, well portrayed in this production,  but he is resolved to be a fair and just king, and not to pardon his former fellows.  By the end of the play, only Ancient Pistol remains, and he is cudgeled and forced to eat a leek.  Although this is one of the play’s wonderful comic scenes (and performed exceedingly well  by the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival), it also mournfully mocks the end  not only of Prince Harry but of the old lovable gang (Falstaff, Bardolph, Nym, Pistol, and Nell Quickly).  In the first half of the play (as in Henry IV), they provide needed comic relief but more importantly a poignant counterpoint to the ideology motivating the king’s actions. 

Just after Henry resolves to invade France, the scene cuts to the Eastside Cheaps, and a commentary on the real costs of war.  While the generals grow excited at the prospect of battles in France, the common men say goodbye to their wives and wearily trudge off to fight.  There is much lip service in this play to the “equality” of all Englishmen, whatever their rank.  However, the rhetoric is not lost on the common soldiers.  When Henry disguises himself and wanders about the camp on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, he hears first-hand that the soldiers don’t believe much of what he says.  He has insisted to the French herald that he will not ransom himself, but the soldiers believe that if it gets too tough, the King will most certainly submit to the French demands.  Henry is provoked but maintains his disguise and vows to settle the dispute with a mouthy soldier after the battle with the French – if they both should live.  This vow is resolved in the glow of victory.  In this performance, the scene is truncated so that Henry immediately reveals himself to the soldier Williams.  Remarkably, the soldier blames Henry for the reception he received while in disguise, and Henry rewards him with a glove full of gold.  In the text, the scene plays much longer, with Henry mischievously setting up Fluellen with the glove that will provoke Williams.  It’s a bit of the old Harry that we lose in this production – but Henry V requires such cutting to be performable, and the scene as written is confusing except for the glimpse of the old Harry.

Power of Language

This is one of the first English plays to use the role of Chorus to propel the action forward.  The Renaissance ideal for drama was a particular interpretation of Aristotle’s Three Unities.  It was believed that the action should believably take place within the span and space of the performance.   Shakespeare loved to flaunt this expectation.  He telescopes the events of many years into about three hours’ time.  However, he uses the Chorus very effectively and self-consciously to propel the action back and forth across the Channel and across time.  As in every play (to some degree)  Shakespeare puts the stage on stage.  The Chorus freely admits to the inadequacies of “this wooden ‘O’” and “unworthy scaffold.”  How can one possibly present the great battle of Agincourt?  “Can this cockpit hold / the vasty fields of France? “  The Hawaii Shakespeare Festival’s Chorus enters smiling, and continues to smile with playful humor, even as she describes the horrors of war.  She smiles, I think, at the wonders of the theatre – in fact, this cockpit can hold the vasty fields of France and Henry’s  vast movements.  The stage also is “dressed” appropriately, with  a wooden “O” on the floor, the battling lion of England and the fleur-de-lys over opposing doors.  

Most productions will show some of the battles in Henry V, even though they are not scripted.  In the text, most large events take place off stage, with bits of running through the stage area to report on the action.  This production includes a few well-done fight scenes that capture the intensity of the battles of Harfleur and Agincourt.  The most effective weapon in the play, however, is language itself.  It is the only weapon we see Henry use (in the script), and thus the play yields some of the most quotable of Shakespearean quotes. 

                “Once more unto the breach, my friends, once more,”
                “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” 

Like that of the reigning Elizabeth I, Henry’s rhetoric rallies his troops beyond their obvious capacity.  You cannot help but notice these powerful rhetorical speeches in the play.  Despite knowing the play and watching it on two consecutive nights, the “band of brothers” speech still gives my spine an involuntary tingle.  Elizabeth’s speech to the Troops at Tilbury was a similar rhetorical event, one that cemented the power of her reign.  The English defeat of the Spanish Armada was another underdog victory. 

This Performance

The Hawaii Shakespeare Festival has taken on this militaristic and macho play with an all female cast.  As Tony Pisculli notes, he dropped his original conceptualization and justification for this casting because the women simply took on the parts naturally.  One virtually forgets that the cast is female because the overall effect is so convincing.  I think this single-gender casting actually gives us an experience akin to the Elizabethan performance, which was staged by all-male casts, with pre-pubescent boys playing most female parts (thus, there are so few female parts in the plays).  There have been attempts to recreate the all-male casting, but there is always a frame of pretense to these projects.  Somehow, the all-female casting comes closer to the original presentation (in my opinion).  There is even the mild shock of Henry and Katherine’s kissing consummation of the peace.  Such scenes between male actors were indeed a point of contention for Elizabethan puritans, who ultimately succeeded in closing the theatres in 1640. 

Shakespeare’s history plays challenge the modern American audience.  We are unfamiliar with the historical background and the politics is dizzying.  But Henry V is a rich and powerful play that will draw you back to “work, work, work  your thoughts” – once more into the breach.

Brenda Machosky
Assistant Professor of English
University of Hawai‘i West O‘ahu


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