August 26, 2004

A Little Touch Of Harry In The Night

Okay, this is Shakespeare-blogging. Deal with it.

Last night I popped in my tape of Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. I really do enjoy this film - how many other movies are there out there that have such a kick-butt varsity cast of Shakespearian actors?

Nonetheless, there are some elements about it that irk me. And since this is a Blog - where all manner of bloviation is possible - I am going to take the opportunity to rant about one of them in particular. Allow me to explain.......

First off, I get extremely impatient with Branagh's effort to turn the whole opus into an anti-war screed. This effort leads to some goofy results - witness, for example, the thigh-slapper lines of Mistress Quickly, Pistol, Bardolf, Nym and the Boy being delivered with an almost Alda-esque earnestness. (Okay, okay, Ken. We get you. War is Hell for both the King and the Little Guy.)

But what really bugs me is the way Branagh chops and changes the beginning of the play to make it seem as if the Archbishops, with the connivence of Gloucester (Brian Blessed), hustle Harry into a needless war through a combination of smooth talking and bribery. In fact, there is a good bit of dialogue among the nobles about the rest of Europe (including France) watching Harry for signs of weakness and, in particular, the designs of the Scots to invade. There is also, of course, the historical context of four centuries of Anglo-Norman land-grabbing in France.

What really really bugs me is the way Branagh stages Canterbury's speech on the French claim that Salic law bars Henry's claim to the French crown. In fact, the Archbishop's argument is perfectly sound: Salic law does not apply to the French Succession. He then cites half a dozen precedents in support of his case that completely undermine the French position. Truly, as Canterbury says, it is "as clear as is the summer sun" that Harry has a perfectly legal claim to the French crown.

Now when Canterbury speaks this line, Branagh has all the English lords chuckle, as if they are nudge-nudge, wink-winking at each other over the convoluted, shady and weak pretext of the Archbish's argument. This is exactly wrong. In 14th Century Europe, the laws of royal succession were taken very, very seriously. Every nobleman had an exact and running knowledge of the histories of the various royal lines, who was entitled to what and by what right. (The question of whether such right should be enforced was a different matter, one more based on the reality of power politics.) Nothing in Canterbury's speech would have seemed dubious to Harry's Court, much less would it have provoked cynical chuckling. This is just a cheap shot by Branagh (who I'm sure is a Loony-Left Labourite if not an outright Jacobin) to sully the Crown and the Church. Hmmph!

Frankly, I've always thought Shakespeare put this speech in the play in large part to show off his own knowledge. It presents a bit of a staging problem - it's long and an average audience could very well get lost in all the references to Pepin, Childeric, Charles of Lorraine and others. Nonetheless, it's not a speech that can be cut because it deals directly with the legality of Henry's claim to the French throne. What to do? I've never seen a stage production of Henry V. The only other movie version I've seen, of course, is Laurence Olivier's. He gets around the issue by turning the whole thing into a Pat and Mike routine between the actors playing Canterbury and the other Archbishop, much to the delight of the Groundlings in the Elizabethan audience.

Aside from Olivier's dodge and Branagh's low blow, does anyone out there recall how any other productions deal with this scene? I'd be curious.

Posted by Robert at August 26, 2004 08:24 AM

Artificial Intelligence is no match for natural stupidity. Unknown

Posted by: korean interracial dating at November 21, 2004 04:06 AM

just wanted to say nice site!


Posted by: オンラインカジノ at January 8, 2005 02:35 AM

Hey I really like your site.


Posted by: kasino at January 28, 2005 09:28 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?