Muse of fire burns out

I have had a good run with Henry V, but I think it is over now

December 19, 2013

Originally, although I trained to be a teacher of Shakespeare, I was put off by the play. It was too militaristic, too jingoistic. Inclined towards pacifism, I had no patience for a head of state and military commander who exhorted his soldiers to rush “once more unto the breach”, and who congratulated them on becoming, through bloodshed, his “band of brothers”.

But then I saw Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version, which gives voice to anti-war sentiment in the play – a voice that was already there, but that I hadn’t been able to hear before. And then came 9/11 and with it, a lot of talk about going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by a lot of war itself.

Teaching Henry V to university students in the US, England and Sweden, I was able to discuss with them a play where reasons for going to war are ardently debated and the costs of doing so are never ignored.

In the beginning we see Henry and his advisers straining to invent excuses to embark on an unprovoked military adventure. By the end of the play, we have not only been privy to the passions and pains of violence, but also to the doubts of soldiers who fear that their duty to their king may well violate their duty to be good, and end up sending them brutally to hell. Through all this, the attentive reader can see something hollow in the play’s militarism and jingoism, something absurd and sorry behind Henry’s triumphs.

And there I was, with students who saw the US and the UK getting ready to go war, then celebrating their triumph in going to war, and finally realising that there was something hollow, absurd or sorry about the whole thing. With Shakespeare’s help I could teach students about just war theory. I was even able to teach them about logic and rhetoric. We looked at the syllogisms embedded in the arguments for and against war made in the play by different characters. We looked at enthymemes and other rhetorical elements, too.

I made no original, rousing speeches myself. I did not try to recruit my students into being my band of brothers and sisters in peace. But they could see for themselves what it was to think about going to war. They could also see what it was to lie about it.

In the early days this was powerful stuff, but this power is spent. My students are finally too young to remember 9/11; they are not sure they remember the war in Iraq. Matters in Afghanistan are winding down. The civil war in Syria, of course, is a terrible worry, but we didn’t start that one and aren’t really in it. I still teach Henry V and I find that my students get a lot from it. They learn about war and peace and the business of manufacturing consent (as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky once called the diffusion of pro-war ideas). But there is no shock of recognition when they read or discuss the play. Henry V, alas, is no longer a matter of life or death. I hope it stays that way. But I miss the excitement.

We humanists are at our best not when we profess what we believe to be true, but when we debunk what we know to be false. Of course, there are other big lies out there: if you’ve got a Claudius, I’ve got a Hamlet.

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