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"This Star of England"
on August 3, 2012
First off, I give "Henry V" a 4 star rating compared to other Shakespeare, not to literature as a whole. The Bard is in a class of his own.
Act 1 of this perennial favorite play of Shakespeare's is only exposition, letting the audience see Henry receive justification for his impending invasion of France. It is dull. Very dull at times. However, stick with it, as it ends on a high note with a great exchange between Henry and the French ambassador.
There are numerous highlights of the play, but my mind is especially drawn to Act 4:1 when Henry walks in disguise among his troops on the eve of battle. Shakespeare gives us the perspectives of the leaders and common soldiers during a war, and he arouses our sympathy for both. An interesting thing I observed was how even in war and battle the obsession with class distinction that was a hallmark of that period in English history is pervasive throughout the text, reminding us that Shakespeare was indeed a product of his time. It seems ridiculous to the modern reader, but in context it is not out of place at all. Act 5:2 is another high point for the play where we get to see Henry's blunt, and I think honest, attempt to woo Katherine. It is humorous for its self deprecation and awkwardness which any person who hates the game of flirtation and dating will understand and appreciate. Some things simply transcend time.
Henry V is the perfect Machiavellian, especially in Act 4:3 when he delivers the iconic "St Crispian's Day" speech. The speech is really a bold faced lie with the king telling the common soldiers who will die in his war that they are "noble" and "his brothers", when really they are shedding blood to increase his power base. Or is he a patriotic hero and a lover of England? Like most good leaders, Shakespeare seems to be saying that he is both. You read this speech and you know you are being manipulated, yet your blood cannot help but quicken.
The best drawn, and really only complex characters in the text are Henry, Fluellen, and perhaps the shady Pistol. Though all three are vastly different: one a consummate politician, one a simple loyal loudmouth, and the last a deceitful and "me first" vagabond, we see that actually these three characters share these qualities with each other, and the only thing that separates them is that one of the qualities is more pronounced in one than the other two. An interesting point being is being made here by the author.
Finally, I love the Chorus who begins each act with begging the audience's pardon for the dramatic license being taken with the historical story, and who then fills in many blanks that the reader does not get to witness first hand. The appeals the Chorus makes to the audience's imagination is what all dramatic literature should strive to do, and I enjoyed this narrative device.
As for the Pelican Shakespeare series, they are my favorite editions as the scholarly research is usually top notch and the editions themselves look good as an aesthetic unit. It looks and feels like a play and this compliments the text's contents admirably. The Pelican series was recently reedited and has the latest scholarship on Shakespeare and his time period. Well priced and well worth it.