Shakespeare and his Band of Brothers: Henry V

Shakespeare and his Band of Brothers: Henry V

By Heather Helinsky

1599: An extraordinary year for Shakespeare as an Elizabethan dramatist.  As he explores the dimensions of King Henry V’s legendary status as England’s greatest warrior in his play of the same title, he’s also emerging as one of England’s preeminent playwrights and professional theatre practitioners.

Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists were writing for an audience of all classes who thrived on new plays. London at that time had a population of roughly 200,000 and on average, based on ticket sales, one-third of London’s adult population saw a play every month. Unlike our contemporary understanding of playwriting as a creation by a single author, most Renaissance plays were co-authored. But we believe Shakespeare authored most of his plays alone. His major competition, England’s groundbreaking and popular playwrights Thomas Kyd, Robert Greene, and George Peele were now ghosts, and the famed Christopher Marlowe had recently died.

In the prior season of 1598, Shakespeare had penned Romeo & Juliet (think of the film Shakespeare in Love) as well as a very popular and controversial two-part blockbuster Henry the Fourth.  The Epilogue of The Second Part of Henry the Fourth is interesting because there are two competing endings that advertised two very different plays to come. One epilogue we know was delivered by the comic actor Will Kemp, who declared “our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John [Falstaff] in it, and make you merry with fair Katherine of France.”

Sir John Falstaff is the well-known drunken mentor to the young Prince Hal, who would become king in Shakespeare’s next promised play, Henry V.  But in the second epilogue, there were no such promises of a merry play with Sir John Falstaff.  In a more polished speech that Shakespeare himself may have delivered to the audience, he used merchant class imagery to suggest that the playwright and playgoers are shareholders in an unpredictable new venture:
“Be it known to you, as it is very well, I was lately here in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your patience for it, and to promise a better.”

Yet when Henry V hits the stage, not only has the comic Will Kemp left Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, but the character of Sir John Falstaff has been killed off just as Prince Hal becomes King Henry V—a betrayal of friendship that is one of the significant themes of the next play. Will Kemp’s response to why he left the company was a puzzling pun that he had “danced his way out of the world.” Another major change for Shakespeare and his company was they had moved to the Bankside of London in the newly constructed Globe Theatre, open for business for the first time in late March of 1599.

Without the company’s favorite comic actor and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men changing locations to the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare had to deliver the goods. By the end of the year, Shakespeare completed Henry V, wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like it, then drafted Hamlet. Short of time travel, we cannot ask Shakespeare directly what was on his mind, so, as with the opening prologue of Henry V, we have to imagine the circumstances and pressure he was under as the writer.

Early in 1599, England’s national poet, Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene, had died and the mourners at his funeral would have gone to the service at Westminster Abbey. Perhaps during the long mass, someone’s eyes were turned upwards to a high wooden beam clearly visible in Westminster Abbey, where King Henry V’s saddle, helm, and shield were hung as symbols of his war achievements. Henry V was the first English monarch to be buried in a separate chantry with the inscription: ‘Henry V, hammer of the Gauls, lies here.’ Next to the king, in an open wooden coffin, some privileged Elizabethans were allowed to kiss the mummified lips of Queen Katherine of Valois. Among the other statues of St. George and St. Denis and inscriptions proclaiming Henry V’s glorious accomplishments in war, there are two aspirations: ‘Virtue conquers all’ and ‘Flee idleness’.

Meanwhile, London’s lord mayor was directing his chief officers to recruit men from even the city’s privileged suburbs to fight a complicated mess of a war in Ireland. Shakespeare and his fellow actors, were exempt from military services because they performed for the Queen. A line in another play written in 1599 states: “We players are privileged,/’Tis our audience must fight in the field for us,/And we upon the stage for them.” (Histriomastix by John Marstron).  Perhaps this explains why Henry V begins with a simple Chorus stating:

O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

“What intrigues me in this epic tale of British history is that Shakespeare strips down to the bare essentials: the character’s journey and what makes them flawed human beings,” says award-winning Philadelphia-area director and DeSales University Theatre alumni Matt Pfeiffer who returns to PSF to direct Henry V.  He sees the benefits of Shakespeare’s call for the audience to use their imaginations instead of the huge spectacle of the blockbuster film. “I prefer to do Shakespeare with nothing,” he says.

Pfeiffer also finds it interesting that this play set on the battlefields of France calls for no grand fight scenes on stage. As a director, he has to approximate the energy of the battlefield without the flashy spectacle of Game-of-Thrones-style fighting.

A formidable ‘half-wooden O’, to approximate the playing space of The Globe Theatre, will command the Labuda Main Stage. The Bob Phillips-designed set will echo the spiritual and eternal elements of Shakespeare’s Globe, but it will not be a true historic representation of it. Both Pfeiffer and Phillips wanted the set design to evoke the space of a grand cathedral. “God is also a big player in Henry V and I wanted to track the religious imagery in this play by creating a solemn theatrical space,” says Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer also learned from directing The Two Gentleman of Verona last year in the smaller Schubert theatre space that he wanted to “evoke the spirit of Shakespeare’s play without it being a museum piece. We are using period costumes, but with so many kings and dukes appearing in this play, we’re doing a leaner version without total fidelity to historical representation.” This will also be reflected in double casting the roles, as Pfeiffer is combining and reassigning roles to simplify the characters on the French and English sides of the battle to a smaller team of three or four representatives.

Pfeiffer prefers intimate storytelling and, as with Two Gents, he will use live music performed by the actors to help create this effect. Although there won’t be a band on stage, the actors will create the atmospheric sounds of battle with a lot of percussion and voices. “The sounds of war [will] have a tactile, human component, as we follow Henry V’s journey realizing the human costs of wars fought to unite England.”

Which brings us back to Shakespeare’s original dilemma: after promising to write a play that would include the comic Will Kemp as the popular Sir John Falstaff, as well as taking on the great war hero “King Henry V, the hammer of the Gauls” at a time where the London Lord Mayor was essentially drafting young men to fight an unpopular conflict in Ireland, what is a writer to do? How does one follow in the footsteps after the death of England’s national poet Edmund Spenser, or fellow playwright the slain Christopher Marlowe? We can never know for sure, other than to examine the storytelling choices made in Henry V. Perhaps the answer was as simple as looking up to the rafters of the Westminster Cathedral for inspiration. What does it mean when a great King’s final epigram wants to remind the living: “Virtue conquers all” and “Flee idleness?”

What it means to be human during war emerges as a central theme throughout Shakespeare’s writing career. Shakespeare was a poet of many themes, and he brought particular mastery to the intersection of war and humanity. Many of his characters are professional soldiers. Beyond the histories of warring kings and lords of Richard III, Richard II, Henry IV, we also have Titus Andronicus and all his sons, Macbeth and his thanes, Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius, Mark Anthony and Octavius Caesar. Iago betrays his fellow soldiers Othello and Cassio. Even in the comedies, Benedick and his colleagues in Much Ado About Nothing are serving together before they descend on Messina for their “merry war” of courting. Bertram escapes his troubles through serving in the military in All’s Well That Ends Well. And the list goes on.

So with many Shakespeare’s plays populated with professional soldiers, we come back to Henry V and to see the humanity in the relationships on the battlefield, even though all the actual fighting and bloodshed is offstage. There’s also no spectacular parade in Act Five as the victorious English return home, although the nation seems united and triumphant with a conquering hero. Instead, Shakespeare’s play invites the audience to debate, posing just as many questions as answers. How does young Prince Hal ‘flee idleness’ and gain respect as the hero uniting England? What self discoveries are made as the hero makes his journey through the battlefields? How does war change our relationships not just with our enemies, but with our loyal friends and ourselves? What does an ideal king need to do to gain respect from his men? Is there such a thing as a just war?

Just as director Matt Pfeiffer intends to discard the trappings of spectacle in favor of simplicity, Shakespeare ends his story with an epilogue, reminding the audience once again that the theatre is a “little room confining mighty men.” Yet unlike the epilogue of The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, he is confident he has earned his standing as England’s great playwright:

Which oft our stage hath shown: and, for their sake,
                  In your fair minds let this acceptance take.”