The history of the reception of Shakespeare's Henry V generally involves a narrative in which critics regard the character of the king as completely heroic until Hazlitt condemns him in Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817). Even Hazlitt's condemnation isn't very straightforward; he seems to be attacking the historical figure as much as the dramatic one and in the end finds much that is admirable in the king Shakespeare put on the stage. Other nineteenth century commentators, with a few exceptions, argue that Henry is an ideal figure, "the hero king [who] shines forth as a type of all that should gather up the loyalty, the patriotism of a subject of Elizabeth," as Julia Wedgwood wrote in "Aeschylus and Shakespeare" (1886).
The narrative, of course, can be complicated by the performance history of the work. Versions that appeared on the stage often cut passages that critics now regularly use to demonstrate the ambiguity that Shakespeare creates. At the end of the eighteenth century, for example, John Kemble, the first actor after Shakespeare's time to effectively portray Henry V, cut out the speech in which Henry threatens Harfleur, the speech in which Henry sanctions Bardolph's execution, and the part of the prayer before Agincourt in which the king admits that the penance he has performed for the sins of his father is of no value. Readers apparently saw that elements of the play did not support the idea that Henry was, without question, an admirable figure, yet those who wrote about the play regularly failed to mention the complex nature of Henry's character.
Those writing such reception histories, however, pass over or ignore the significance--at least as I read it--of an allusion to Henry V that can be found in The Noble Gentleman (1625) of John Fletcher, the Jacobean playwright best known for his collaborations with Francis Beaumont. (The history of The Noble Gentleman, by the way, is as complicated as a scholar could want. The play, credited to John Fletcher, was licensed for performance after Fletcher's death on February 3, 1625--1626 by our calendar, as the year began in March according to the old calendar--but when it was published 21 years later in the works of Beaumont and Fletcher, a prologue suggested Beaumont, who died in 1616, had a hand in writing it, so some literary historians have posited that it was written as early as 1606 and revised in 1613 by Fletcher, while others, seeing the influence of a 1612 translation of Don Quixote, date its composition between 1613 and 1616. Isn't scholarship fun? I'm just going to attribute the play to Fletcher, since a source 21 years after the play was first licensed, as far as anyone knows, seems a dubious one to trust, especially since a Beaumont and Fletcher work would have been thought more important than one by Fletcher alone at the time.)
What is of interest to us here is Fletcher's parody, in Act 3, Scene 4 of his play, of the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech that legitimizes Henry's invasion of France. The madman Shattillion (as the name appears in the old-spelling editions) in Fletcher's play claims that he is the true King of France using an argument that is very similar to Canterbury's. Marine, the French gentleman aspiring to become a great courtier, wisely, if uncharacteristically so, asks Shattillion, "Is not his majesty possess'd in peace,/ And justice executed in his name?" Marine seems to be arguing that the peacefulness of the reign, even if its legitimacy turns out to be questionable, is what is most important, and The Noble Gentleman is not the only play in which Fletcher had a hand in writing that such an argument appears. In Beaumont and Fletcher's A King and No King (1611), Arbaces, the accidental king of Iberia, proves his right to the throne, even though his claim is technically illegitimate, by defeating Tigranes, the king of Armenia, in single combat, and tells his subjects, "By you I grow: 'Tis your united love/ That lifts me to this height."
Both Marine and Arbaces accept the common notion that a monarch, as Mervyn James observes in Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England, requires reverence from his "subjects because his authority rested on divine, as well as human, election." The notion here isn't exactly democratic, unless one wants to see in it some sort of pre-modern mystical variety of democracy, but it does suggest that a monarch's ability to retain the love of his subjects and rule peacefully gives his reign legitimacy regardless of another's seemingly more valid claim.
Fletcher's parody of Henry V calls attention to a fault line in Shakespeare's play that no director could cut, for Henry's right to the French throne must be explained. Otherwise, Henry is just a conqueror who should have never gone to war, something he acknowledges when he warns Canterbury, "God forbid, my dear and faithful lord,/ That you should fashion, wrest, or bow your reading,/ Or nicely charge your understanding soul/ With opening titles miscreate, whose right/ Suits not in native colors with the truth." Fletcher renders all claims to a throne held by a monarch reigning in peace untruthful and thereby condemns the very ground on which Henry's heroic stature is built.
 I return to Henry V this week--a play I had planned to write about every week in August when I began this blog--to celebrate the opening of the Globe Theatre back in 1599.
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