Leaders of absolute power in history are fascinating (and baffling), from Hitler to Khomeini to Mao, to the less radical and less controversial Queen Elizabeth II. While in most cases, their authority was/is divinely legitimated, their successes still affirm instances of faith placed in a human being. The idea of secular worship can be an alternative to religious worship: the belief in something intangible larger than the self, only rooted in the earthly realm, i.e. in nationhood or collective identities not predicated on religion.
Henry V, the eponymous king of Shakespeare’s historical play, is one such leader possessing the combination of charisma, fortune, and gift for speech. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production, directed by Joseph Haj, runs through October 12 in their large outdoor Globe-style Elizabethan Stage. (We caught it Tuesday night in pleasant hippie-town Ashland.)
One of the most realist productions of any Shakespeare play (or any play) I have seen, this Henry V had no sentimental moment and is definitely not for family fun, or even very family-friendly. One execution scene may catch you off-guard and is quite drawn out, difficult and uncomfortable to watch. The palette is a range of frosty grays, the costume a hybrid styling from Medieval to modern-day warfare, including variations on fur cloaks, white leggings (for the French, of course), double-breasted coats, riding boots, and utility vests.
The play chronicles the surprising historic victory of English forces over the French at the Battle of Agincourt, which led to the brief union of England and France via the marriage of Henry and the French princess Katherine. It is perhaps better appreciated as the last installment of a trilogy, after Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2, since together they follow Prince Hal’s change and maturation into King Henry V.
When King Henry (John Tufts) reprises his role disguising as a commoner (as he does in Henry IV) and banters with the soldiers, it is clear that his and his subjects’ interests do not align. Henry assures them he thinks the king would rather be at battle than anywhere else, to which one soldier says if that’s the case, then he wishes the king were here alone. The sentiment has a lot of bite and truth in it.
The play is unusual for Shakespeare in that it relies on a Chorus to rapidly move the plot forward, each time explicitly asking the audience to imagine in their “minds,” narrative-dramatic leaps in time and locale. The emphasis is not on action but speech and the illusory quality of words. Henry is given a string of monologues, the most famous containing the line “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” as he rouses his troops to battle.
While one could argue that the position of kingship is inextricably linked to the divine, the battle takes place on St. Crispin’s Day, and “God, God, God” is invoked many times over to explain their fates, I am less insterested in how Henry takes inspiration and courage from God, than in how his people take inspiration and courage from him, Henry Plantagenet, just another man, a “plain soldier,” as he says to Katherine, taking off his crown in the last scene.
The almost lost-in-translation quality of the last scene, in which he tries to woo Katherine (Brooke Parks) in plain English and some broken French, contrasts with the clever tongues of Shakespeare’s rom-coms. The rationales he presents to Katherine are primarily political – along the lines of ‘when you are mine, then France is mine, when I am yours, France is yours.’
OSF’s production, as it has admirably been doing in recent years, also adds sign language to the mix. It is seamlessly incorporated into the play with Uncle Exeter (Howie Seago) and his interpreter (Christine Albright). Language seems to serve the purpose of persuasion and tears down rather than erects barriers.
But all is not well in the end, for I suppose history (and wars) never end. Those already versed in the history knows, as the Chorus tells us at the end (historical spoiler?), that while a French-English Henry VI was begot, his ascendance to the throne as an infant and subsequent managers of his power eventually led to not peace, but break and bloodshed.
Shakespeare’s sympathy for and criticism of leaders, and the role absolute leadership plays, certainly has a lot of relevance today. Leaders toppled in the Arab Spring have been or are in the process of being necessarily replaced by new leaders, their legacy yet to be seen. The play doesn’t leaves much hope in the way of anything and in fact ends on a pretty daunting note, making it difficult to separate right from wrong as far as political decisions go. But it does seem to affirm the importance of a strong human leader to hold a people together, which may also mark the essential problem secular faith must contend with, that a collective ethos may only thrive as long as its human leader lives to rouse it.