Study Guide

Henry V Art and Culture

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Art and Culture

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! (Prologue.1-4)

Here, the Chorus asks for a "muse of fire" to help the theater company portray "a kingdom for a stage," which tells us that Shakespeare wants us to take his play very, very seriously. (This classic move, by the way, is called an "Invocation to the Muse." Check out the openings of The Odyssey, Paradise Lost, and The Aeneid for some other famous examples.) We just have one question: Why does the best playwright of all time need help from a muse? Keep reading...

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraisèd spirits that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object. Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O pardon, (Prologue.5-16)

Shakespeare usually saves his "sorry our play is so lousy" speech for the Epilogue, but here the Chorus apologizes in advance for the play's lack of realism. (The tiny stage cannot possibly "hold the vastly fields of France" or "cram" thousands of actors portraying soldiers into the theater.)

And let us, ciphers to this great account,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high uprearèd and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance.
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth,
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times,
Turning th’ accomplishment of many years
Into an hourglass; for the which supply,
Admit me chorus to this history,
Who, prologue-like, your humble patience pray
Gently to hear, kindly to judge our play. (Prologue.18-36)

Since Shakespeare's theater company's staging options are pretty limited, the Chorus urges us, the audience, to put our imaginations to work so that we can imagine that one single actor represents a "thousand" soldiers. We also notice that the Chorus uses vivid imagery to help us imagine horses "printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth." In other words, Shakespeare's going to do his best to bring historical events to life for us, but this play's success rests in the audience's hands.

Either our history shall with full mouth
Speak freely of our acts, or else our grave,
Like Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless mouth,
Not worshipped with a waxen epitaph. (1.2.238-241)

Like we've said before, <em>Henry V</em> is very self-conscious play. Here, Shakespeare acknowledges that he's portraying his version of history, which audiences may or may not embrace. When the Chorus talks about its anxiety about the play's success, it reminds us of Henry's anxiety about his military campaign. What's up with that?

There is the playhouse now, there must you sit,
And thence to France shall we convey you safe
And bring you back, charming the narrow seas
To give you gentle pass; for, if we may,
We’ll not offend one stomach with our play.
But, till the King come forth, and not till then,
Unto Southampton do we shift our scene. (2.Prologue.36-42)

A major component of the Chorus's role is to set the scene before each act of the play, kind of like a tour guide who will take us across the English Channel to watch Henry's Battle of Agincourt. (First, though, we have to make a pit stop in Southampton.) The effect of this is to make us feel as though we are somehow participating in Henry's journey.

Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies
In motion of no less celerity
Than that of thought. Suppose that you have seen
The well-appointed king at Dover pier
Embark his royalty, and his brave fleet
With silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning
Play with your fancies and in them behold,
Upon the hempen tackle, shipboys climbing.
Hear the shrill whistle, which doth order give
To sounds confused. Behold the threaden sails,
Borne with th’ invisible and creeping wind,
Draw the huge bottoms through the furrowed sea,
Breasting the lofty surge. O, do but think
You stand upon the rivage and behold
A city on th’ inconstant billows dancing,
For so appears this fleet majestical,
Holding due course to Harfleur. Follow, follow!
Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy,
And leave your England, as dead midnight still,
Guarded with grandsires, babies, and old women,
Either past or not arrived to pith and puissance,
For who is he whose chin is but enriched
With one appearing hair that will not follow
These culled and choice-drawn cavaliers to France?
Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege;
Behold the ordnance on their carriages,
With fatal mouths gaping on girded Harfleur.
Suppose th’ Ambassador from the French comes back,
Tells Harry that the King doth offer him
Katherine his daughter and with her, to dowry,
Some petty and unprofitable dukedoms.
The offer likes not, and the nimble gunner
With linstock now the devilish cannon touches,
                                           Alarum, and chambers go off.
And down goes all before them. Still be kind,
And eke out our performance with your mind. (3.Prologue.1-37)

The Chorus really gets into this whole humble tour guide gig, don't you think?

The confident and over-lusty French
Do the low-rated English play at dice
And chide the cripple tardy-gaited night,
Who like a foul and ugly witch doth limp
So tediously away. The poor condemnèd English,
Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires
Sit patiently and inly ruminate (4.Prologue.19-25)

The Chorus is instrumental in Shakespeare's quest to portray Henry's troops as the underdogs at Agincourt. Here, we learn that the "poor condemned English" are sitting around their campfires, preparing to die in the following day's battle, while the French (who outnumber their enemies) kick back and relax.

I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty
a heart. But the saying is true: 'The empty vessel
makes the greatest sound.' Bardolph and Nym had
ten times more valor than this roaring devil i’ th’ old
play, that everyone may pare his nails with a wooden
dagger, and they are both hanged, and so would
this be if he durst steal anything adventurously. I
must stay with the lackeys with the luggage of our
camp. The French might have a good prey of us if he
knew of it, for there is none to guard it but boys.(4.4.67-76)

When the unnamed Boy (Falstaff's page) criticizes Bardolph and Nim, he compares them to the "roaring devil i' / the old play," which is a shout-out to the "Vice" figure, a stock figure in Medieval Morality plays. Apparently, Falstaff's Boy is a huge theater buff.

Vouchsafe to those that have not read the story
That I may prompt them; and of such as have,
I humbly pray them to admit th' excuse
Of time, of numbers, and due course of things,
Which cannot in their huge and proper life
Be here presented. (5.Prologue.1-6)

Yeesh. Enough already with the apologies.

Thus far with rough and all-unable pen
Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory. (5.Epilogue.1-4)

In the Epilogue, the Chorus apologizes (yet again) for the author's "rough and all-unable pen," which has somehow "mangled" Henry's story. This is classic Shakespeare, who frequently apologizes to his audiences at the end of his plays. (Check out the Epilogue of A Midsummer Night's Dream for another example.)

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