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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Henry V—Rebellion Broached

Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro describes how Shakespeare’s Henry V paralleled the Earl of Essex’s attempt to curtail rebellion in 1599. Henry V concludes Shakespeare's Henriad, currently running in four segments as part of the RSC's King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings at the Harvey Theater through May 1. 

RSC ensemble in Henry V. Photo: Stephanie Berger

In the Epilogue to Henry IV, Part II, for the first and only time in his playwriting career, Shakespeare shared with audiences what he was planning to write next:
If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katharine of France. Where, for anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already ’a be killed with your hard opinions.
But as disappointed playgoers soon discovered, Sir John Falstaff would not reappear in Henry V: Will Kemp, the comic star for whom Shakespeare had created the role, quit the company, and Falstaff’s part was written out of the story. Henry V would evolve in other ways as well, especially in response to unfolding events.

Troubles and Revolts

During the early months of 1599, as Shakespeare was finishing the play (and with it, the four-part historical sequence that had begun with Richard II), England was mired in what would come to be called the Nine Years’ War in Ireland. The war had taken a disastrous turn the previous August, when a column of 3,500 English troops, hoping to relieve the Blackwater garrison near Armagh, were routed by Irish forces led by Hugh O’Neill. The English soldiers ran for their lives and “were for the most part put to the sword.” An emboldened O’Neill and his followers were determined to uproot the New English settlers, and in the months that followed disturbing reports reached London of “four hundred more throats cut in Ireland” and of “new troubles and revolts.”

RSC ensemble in Henry V. Photo: Stephanie Berger

An army would have to be mobilized to avenge the humiliating defeat and crush the rebellious Irish once and for all. The charismatic Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was chosen by the Queen to lead the expeditionary force, 16,000 strong, plus cavalry, which assembled in the early afternoon of March 27 at Tower Hill before marching off to fight. But along with the patriotic cheers for Essex and his men there was also considerable grumbling. Since there was no standing army in Elizabethan England, fresh troops had to be constantly rounded up. Nearly 10,000 civilians had been conscripted for the Irish wars in 1598 alone; an additional 7,300 would be sent there in the first six months of 1599. Casualty rates were high and sickness rife; many never made it home.

Call for Troops

We tend to laugh nowadays at the recruitment scene in Henry IV, Part II, in which a pathetic group of potential soldiers are paraded before “Captain” Falstaff. Mouldy is old, Shadow slight, Wart tattered, and Feeble doddering (and too naive to understand that he must bribe his way out of serving). All are initially selected, save Wart, whom even Falstaff admits is unfit for service. Shadow is no less unsuitable, though Falstaff jokes, “we have a number of shadows fill up the muster book.” For Shakespeare’s playgoers, however, this painfully familiar scene—which dramatizes the bribery and rampant corruption that defined the Elizabethan military—would have registered as sardonic.

Some conscripts refused to embark for Ireland, including 200 Londoners who mutinied, refusing to go any further than Towcester. There may well have been widespread sympathy for such action taken by men who had been waylaid outside of churches, inns, and playhouses and packed off to Ireland, ill-fed and poorly trained and outfitted. One contemporary spoke of “the poor English” who “are half dead before they come there, for the very name of Ireland do break their hearts, it is now so grown to misery.” Another recorded a proverb at the time: “Better be hanged at home than die like dogs in Ireland.” The social friction generated by the seemingly endless calls for fresh troops would draw the attention of London’s playwrights, including Thomas Dekker. His dark comedy, The Shoemaker’s Holiday, also staged in 1599, vividly conveys the high price paid by conscripts torn from their families and communities.

The costly campaign was also unpopular with London’s merchants, who had to foot the bill for it through forced loans they feared would later be declared outright gifts and never repaid. London also had to deal with a refugee problem, as frightened and in some cases destitute settlers in Ireland started making their way back home. The sight of these refugees would have been demoralizing, as would their stories of the rebels’ atrocities.

RSC ensemble in Henry V. Photo: Stephanie Berger

It is hardly surprising, then, that the national preoccupation with Ireland seeps into Henry V, though for much of the play the allusions to the current crisis are fleeting, such as the offhand remarks about Irish kerns and bogs. When Gower, an English captain, speaks of a soldier who wears “a beard of the General’s cut,” his reference to the Earl of Essex’s distinctive square-cut beard—which collapses the distance between Henry V’s world and their own—would not have been lost upon Elizabethan playgoers. There are also glancing allusions to the kind of bitter conditions their conscripted relatives and neighbors were facing at that moment in Ireland, with “winter coming on and sickness growing / Upon our soldiers.”

Outside the Playhouse

Only in the play’s final act does Essex’s Irish campaign, long submerged, break the surface of the play: in the Chorus’ speech describing Henry V’s triumphant return to London. Briefly setting aside the make-believe world of theater and reminding audiences of what was happening outside of the playhouse—something he almost never did—Shakespeare invites his fellow Londoners to imagine the near future, when they will pour into London’s streets to welcome home from Ireland the Earl of Essex, “General of our gracious Empress” Queen Elizabeth:

But now behold,
In the quick forge and working-house of thought,How London doth pour out her citizens!
The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of th’antique Rome,
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conqu’ring Caesar in:
As by a lower but loving likelihood,
Were now the General of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him?

—Chorus, Act V

A Going-to-War Play

Those seeking to pinpoint Shakespeare’s political views in Henry V will always be disappointed. Shakespeare resists revelling either in reflexive patriotism or in a critique of nationalistic wars, though the play contains elements of both. Henry V succeeds and frustrates because it consistently refuses to adopt a single voice or point of view about military adventurism—past and present. Shakespeare was aware that on some deep level, as their brothers, husbands, and sons were being shipped off to fight in Ireland, Elizabethans craved a play that reassuringly reminded them of their heroic, martial past. What better subject than the famous victories of Henry V? The siege at Harfleur would be a triumph, compensating for the defeat of besieged Blackwater. But Shakespeare also knew that his audiences— already weary of military call-ups and unnerved by terrible reports from settlers and soldiers returning from Ireland—were, by the eve of Essex’s departure, of two minds about the campaign. Henry V thus takes its place among the many stories circulating in London at this anxious time —from the gossip at court and in the taverns to the official sermons and royal pronouncements justifying the imminent military expedition—and yet somehow manages to encompass them all. It wasn’t a pro-war play or an anti-war play, but a going-to-war play.

Antony Sher and Alex Hassell in Henry IV. Photo: Richard Termine

Fraught Politics

Essex’s longed-for triumph never happened; Hugh O’Neill was the better tactician and Essex’s Irish campaign failed. He returned to England without Queen Elizabeth’s permission, and burst in upon her unannounced. He was put under house arrest and it would be the last time he would see her. Shakespeare’s words about Essex returning from Ireland “with rebellion broached on his sword” would take on an unintended ironic meaning when in February 1601, Essex led a group of 300 armed men into the city, hoping to generate popular support for his cause; the treasonous uprising was quickly suppressed and Essex tried and beheaded. By then, Henry V had already been rushed into print, the quarto edition sanitized of any mention of “the general of our gracious Empress.”

On the eve of that uprising, Essex’s followers had approached Shakespeare’s company and paid them to perform Richard II at the Globe. Like King Richard, Queen Elizabeth was a childless ruler who engaged in benevolences (a punishing form of taxation), and had saddled the nation with a costly Irish war. Queen Elizabeth saw the unflattering parallels between herself and her deposed predecessor all too clearly, and was reported to have said: “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?”

In the aftermath of the failed uprising, Shakespeare’s company was called in to explain why they had staged “the killing of Richard II.” They pleaded ignorance and were fortunate to escape punishment. But the episode reminds us of how powerfully Shakespeare’s Histories responded to, and were implicated in, the fraught politics of the time.

The RSC's King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings plays the Harvey Theater through May 1. 

James Shapiro, Professor of English at Columbia University, is author of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, and the recent The Year of Lear: 1606.

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