Although many people will recognize Henry V as the Shakespearean play that contains the rousing line “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” not as many will recognize the far less warm-and-fuzzy line, “In liberty of bloody hand [we] shall range / With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass / Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.”
Yikes. What’s even more surprising is that these two lines are both uttered by the titular character, Henry. In Door Shakespeare’s staging of Henry V, Henry’s vacillations between honor and cruelty force the audience to question their sympathies. It’s not all doom and gloom, though – humor and romance appear throughout, suspended above a landscape of war and political turmoil.
The already intimate setting of Björklunden becomes even more so during the first few minutes of Henry V. Before the play begins, the actors mill about the stage, stretching, performing vocal exercises and chatting with one another. Then the chorus, played by Matt Daniels, takes the stage. His initial monologue beckons to the audience members and compels them to lean forward in their seats as the play unfolds before them.
Henry, played by Eric Schabla, commands the audience’s sympathies as he leads his country into a just war, provoked in part by the arrogance of the French Dauphin, Louis. In a scene lit only by flickering “fire” light on stage, a disguised Henry walks among the soldiers in his camp. His heartfelt soliloquy is reminiscent of Jesus’ inner turmoil at the Garden of Gethsemane. Henry wonders aloud at the responsibility placed on the shoulders of all leaders. Is it placed there by God? By ceremony? Or is his responsibility to his army simply that of a mortal man to his brothers?
In Henry’s famed “band of brothers” speech, he wins the audience’s sympathy again with his earnest appeal to the inherent humanity of all of his soldiers and his rousing patriotism. This sentiment becomes disconcerting when compared to his failings as a leader. He commits a war crime by slaughtering prisoners and threatens to rain down unspeakable horrors on a French town.
In his preparation for the role of Henry, Schabla thought a lot about the contradictions inherent in this character.
“In my own soul searching prior to the role, I was thinking about the ways in which leaders are frail and not who we think they are,” Schabla said. “In Shakespeare, there are sharp edges to characters. I try not to smooth these edges out or make things continuous when they’re not.”
The audience sees another of Henry’s puzzling character contradictions during his encounter with Katherine, princess of France and an instrument of peace between France and England. At first glance, it seems that Katherine, played by Elyse Edelman, serves mainly to add comic relief and a touch of romance to the play – her exaggerated French accent and imperfect command of English are the butt of many jokes.
Her presence proves to be quite subversive, however, during the scene when she first meets Henry. Although Katherine has already been promised to Henry in marriage, he is suddenly stripped of his bravado and eloquence in her presence, and the power dynamic shifts in her favor. Speaking in prose instead of Shakespeare’s usual verse, Henry clumsily attempts to woo her. Even though Katherine is limited in her ability to respond to Henry in English, she retains control of the conversation by withholding from him what he really wants: her affection.
Like many of Shakespeare’s female characters, Katherine is not afforded much agency. She is given to Henry in marriage as an object: a goodwill gift. During Katherine’s limited time on stage, Edelman makes clear her important role in the overarching plot and breathes exquisite personality and life into her character.
“What’s fun [about playing Katherine] is that, even though you’re working within a specific circumstance, you can find room for more colors,” Edelman said.
In the end, it seems that’s exactly what Door Shakespeare’s staging of Henry V emphasizes the most: the many colors and contradictions inherent in each character. According to Schabla, it is Shakespeare’s ability to weave together such incongruities that makes Henry V such a compelling tale.
“We have a really hard time holding disparate ideas today, which is all Shakespeare does and also why he will always be relevant,” Schabla said.
Throughout Door Shakespeare’s production of Henry V, the audience is forced to grapple with contradictions and complications. All the while, the chorus appears intermittently to remind the audience that the play is just that: a play. Shakespeare never tries to pass off art as reality. Instead, to borrow words from another great storyteller, Toni Morrison, Shakespeare’s storytelling “arcs toward the place where meaning may lie.”
Although Henry V questions the role of leaders, the meaning of war, the validity of impassioned rhetoric and the place for love in the midst of it all, Shakespeare does not provide us with any real answers. We are left to make up our minds for ourselves.