October 01, 2005

"This is the English not the Turkish court"

The Royal National Theatre in London is an iffy institution. Most months it produces highly tendentious uninteresting soft-left plays but every now and then … well, every now and then it hits the heights.

A couple of months ago it was Tom Stoppard’s stunning trilogy about the Russian revolutionary movement of the nineteenth century “The Coast of Utopia”, much disliked by the intelligentsia a.k.a. journalists and reviewers. Stoppard had the temerity to be rude about Marx and the various revolutionaries. He also had the temerity to write the plays after he had found out a good deal about the subject. Shock, horror all round.

This summer there were the two Henry IVs. Beautifully acted by people who could actually speak Shakespeare, with spare scenery and no gimmicks, the productions allowed the plays to speak for themselves. And what they said was fascinating.

There are several themes in Shakespeare’s Chronicles, the most interesting of which are the plays of the Wars of the Roses, from Richard II to Richard III. The two Henry IVs and Henry V can be seen as a trilogy at the heart of which stands the English hero, Prince Hal, later King Henry V.

Henry IV Part II is often described as a picture of English life from top to bottom – and a very unpleasant one it is, too, particularly at the bottom end: crooks, liars, cheats, fools, the lot of them.

But what the plays are more than anything is a long meditation on the concept of England, Englishness and the English crown. Written in the sixteenth century, during a period of relative calm (give or take a few plots, rebellions and assassination attempts of the Queen), about half-way between two devastating civil wars, these plays make it clear that all these concepts were ones familiar enough to a very varied audience for them to be discussed on the stage.

Most people know John of Gaunt’s glorious and lyrical monologue from Richard II, in which the dying man, fearful of the future, talks of

“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea….
This blessed plot, this realm, this England.”

The phrases are often quoted and the sentiment proudly repeated but it is unlikely to have gained complete acceptance among the audience, who knew well the truth about infection and the hand of war. But again, the sentiment was there; the idea of England was clear enough to work into a play.
The plays deal with more specific matters: the Crown of England being the most important one, both as a symbol and as a physical object, of some significance in the age of a more peripatetic court and of greater need for emblems and artifacts. (I say that, but is it true? Emblems and artifacts remain as important to people as ever. We all live by symbols.)

Richard II is forced to hand the crown over to Bolingbroke and agrees to do so but at the last moment either drops it or throws it on the ground; Henry IV is obsessive about his need to have the crown with him all the time, whether he wakes or sleeps, but at the same feels its weight as his coscience remains heavy; Henry V knows that he must put the crown on his head as soon as he can and does so prematurely, in fact, when he believes his father to be dead. And so it goes, till finally, the crown is retrieved at the Battle of Bosworth Field and placed on Henry VII’s head.

An important part of the theme is the search for the king who is both the rightful heir and deserves to be so. Richard II is the rightful monarch but forfeits his kingship by commissioning the murder of Thomas Woodstock, that starts the century-long cycle of violence, by his profligacy, his weakness and, finally, his wrongful confiscation of Bolingbroke’s lands.

Bolingbroke is justified in reclaiming his property by whatever method is necessary, but he goes further in usurping the crown and having the rightful king murdered. Not only is his position undermined but his action sets off the next round of violence, the Percy – Mortimer rebellion.

He knows he can never be worthy of his great burden, as he explains to his son:

“…God knows, my son,
By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head:”

Hal, on the other hand, will inherit rightfully (a questionable assumption) and will have the chance to show himself worthy of the great honour of being King of England, Henry IV dying full of troubled worries about the state of the realm. The main problem is Hal’s apparent flightiness and unacceptable companions.

The crucial scene of the play comes immediately after Henry IV’s death when Hal comes out of his father’s chamber, in the latest production, already wearing the crown. His brothers and close courtiers stand unhappy and fearful for their own and their country’s future.

It is at this point that Henry V shows his greatness for the first time and says the words that, in my opinion, crystallize much of what England (and following from that, the Anglosphere) is about.

First he comforts his brothers:

“Brothers, you mix your sadness with some fear:
This is the English, not the Turkish court;
Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds,
But Harry, Harry. …”

That he has to say it, shows that the truth of this is not self-evident; that he says it shows that the notion of it is strongly held.

It is of some interest how often both the kings are referred to as Harry, the more intimate English name than the formal and foreign-sounding Henry. That may be one reason why Shakespeare never managed to write a play (so far as we know) about Henry VII – a usurper, if ever there was one, but Elizabeth’s grandfather. Who could have called that mean-minded despot Harry? His son, on the other hand, may have been an even bigger despot but was undoubtedly a Harry.

Having comforted his brothers, Henry V turns to the Lord Chief Justice whom he had once struck and who, in return, had thrown him into prison. When tasked with this, the Lord Chief Justice replies proudly:

“I then did use the person of your father;
The image of his power lay then in me:
And, in the administration of his law,
Your highness pleased to forget my place,
The majesty and power of law and justice,
The image of the king whom I presented,”

Henry’s greatness is shown by his forgetting the personal injury and accepting the statement of right: the law is the law and nobody is above it, not even the heir to the throne. There is a direct link here with the story John O’Sullivan tells in his article in the New Criterion of his Hungarian friend who, as a refugee, chose to go to Canada because it was ruled by the Queen and, therefore, even the policemen obeyed the law.

Alas, it is not really true for Britain any more, if it ever was fully. But the idea is there. And those two ideas are vitally important in showing what the English ideal was and the fact that it must have been recognized not just by Shakespeare but by his audience as well. Otherwise, why would he have written it?

The famous scene of Hal disowning Falstaff may be more important from a dramatic point of view, but the one of Hal accepting the role of an English king is of great historical significance. The play ends with him calling Parliament together – money is needed for the French wars and that is the only way to get it. Another English idea.

PS I promise not to write about the Tudors or Shakespeare for a while.

Posted by Helen Szamuely at October 1, 2005 07:58 PM

Tis only fit that Shakespeare's plays should be
Examined on this Anglospheric blog!
For what more timely, now, as then, to see
Th'essential nature of those things we share
That heritage far-spread, for good and ill,
So fitly limned in Will's enduring plays?
So Helen feel not bound to hold from us
Thy musings on the Tudors or the Bard!

Let not thy Blogging Muse be so betrayed!
Please break thy promise so untimely made!

Posted by: Lex at October 1, 2005 11:35 PM

Blimey! As the Bard would have said. Possibly.

Posted by: Helen at October 2, 2005 07:36 AM

Thank you, Helen. You have given me beauty and comfort this night.

Posted by: Bill White at October 2, 2005 10:08 PM

Come on now, some of us might enjoy more posts about the Tudors! It happens to be a familial interest in my case, as I"m a direct descendant of Katherine Tudor, through her marriage to Lord Salisbury (it had already changed from Sainsby by then I think).

In any event, our little branch of that line skipped out on England in the 1600's (to Plymouth), just over 500 years after arriving in the van of Guillaume Le Conquerant :-)

And now this little trickle is personally very disturbed by the trends in Federal law and regulation, to say nothing of the political culture in the US, and is thinking of bugging out again, perhaps to India or to francophonie. We'll see how things go after university!



Posted by: David Mercer at October 3, 2005 08:37 PM

How can you be disturbed by regulation and wanting to bug out to Francophonie? Have you seen the regulations there? Or in India for that matter?

Posted by: Helen at October 4, 2005 11:57 AM

Helen, if you go here and read the history of the US Cofe of Federal Regulations, I think that you'll find it bigger than the laws of France, for quite some time.

The French are the ONLY nation that has had bigger increases in productivity in the last boom period, and indeed has higher productivity than the US per man-hour. Their total GDP is lower because they have CHOSEN to work less, and enjoy life more.

The Code of Federal Regulations in the US has for some time been too big to print in it's entirety on an annual basis, and now comes out in 4 parts, quarterly.

Posted by: David Mercer at October 4, 2005 05:01 PM

And, no doubt, the French have also chosen to enjoy life more on the dole - their unemployment is going up and up and people who want to run businesses are removing themselves to Britain. Even here, and goodness knows, it is hard, they find it a lot easier to start businesses, run them or work in them. All part of enjoying life. What they have chosen, of course, is being subsidized in various ways - agriculture, scientific research, etc - by the rest of the EU. That's us. If it weren't for that subsidy, that chosen leisurely existence would be even higher, as unemployment would go up even more.

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