Focus on "Henry V":

Navigating Digital Text, Performance, & Historical Resources

“Educational Breakthrough” Films

Benitez  |  Good Hal Hunting  |  Henry V and The Onion  |  Baldur's Gate


Shakespeare becomes the rallying point for a squad of underperforming army recruits in the 1994 film Renaissance Man. The group, a diverse assemblage of rural and urban stereotypes, come under the tutelage of an out of work ex-advertiser played by Danny DeVito, who’s charged with the task of getting them through “basic comprehension.” The squad—a couple of country boys, an ex-crack dealer, a solitary woman trying to make it in the male-dominated military—along with DeVito’s Bill Rago, must prove themselves, must amount to something. 

Shakespeare becomes the mutual language through which their diverse life experiences are channeled and consolidated, thus affording them the solidarity that their previous waywardness denied them. The majority of the references to Shakespeare come from Hamlet, but it is not until Private Benitez—a Bronx accented Italian American who has hitherto spouted Al Pacino quotes and impersonations—recites Henry’s "band of brothers" speech in the rain, that the overseeing officers, especially the contentious drill sergeant, are able to see that the group has what it takes. Benitez, who complains about the stage accents of performers seen at a staging of Henry V during a field trip to Canada, takes up the king’s rhetoric of consolidation, and his group passes a threshold: they prove that they are ready to join the institution, and the film concludes shortly after. 

"Benitez" Video Transcript

The merging of Benitez’s accent with Henry’s rhetoric might be played for comedic value; yet this merge also demonstrates that Henry’s words now inhabit the young private, that he is signaling a switch or growth in identity from his previous mobster persona—the manifestation of a prominent Italian-American stereotype. That Benitez rejects the English accent yet incorporates Henry’s words wrenches the play’s rhetoric into the present day even as the climactic scene functions as a kind of recourse to an old, by now traditionally established identity of masculine, martial behavior. Henry’s words are capable of drawing the best performance out of an American stereotype. 

Benitez seemingly proves that, despite the various racial and ethnic differences and the infighting this has supposedly caused within his squad, their education in Shakespeare has led them to a point beyond which they’ll be able to cast off their differences and function as a single, consolidated force. As James Remar’s character, a put-upon officer with a heart of gold, puts it early in the film “Everybody’s got a story.” The trick is to unify these stories through a common language, provided here by the bard. Everyone, including DeVito’s Bill Rago, can learn, through Shakespeare, to serve their higher power, thus indicating the strangely conservative politics of the film: soldiers and educators exist on the same traditional or essential level, while businessmen in the private sector are soulless scum edging each other out even as they innovate.

Good Hal Hunting

Shakespeare, specifically Henry V, functions as a threshold of sorts again in Good Will Hunting, another educational breakthrough narrative. Matt Damon plays Will Hunting, a genius, self-educated but temperamentally unstable young man from south Boston. A mathematics professor at MIT—the institution where Will works on the custodial staff—catches Will solving a complex problem and decides to take the young man under his wing, on the condition that Hunting attend therapy sessions with Robin Williams, another jaded academic figure who teaches at a community college.

"Good Will Hunting" Video Transcript

Williams’ character has a hard time breaking through to Will initially: the young man is too smart, too savvy; however, Williams soon realizes that Will’s knowledge all comes from extensive time at the library, that the young man’s absorptive literary tendencies function as a defense mechanism, a way to remain hidden behind so many accumulated commonplaces and recitations. Williams, on the other hand, fought in Vietnam, lost a wife to cancer, has lived a life in addition to his strong literary background. During one of their sessions, the two characters meet in the Boston Public Garden, away from institutions and bookshelves. Overlooking the water, Williams states:

You're a tough kid. And I'd ask you about war, you'd probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, "once more unto the breach dear friends." But you've never been near one. You've never held your best friend's head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help.

Shakespeare’s line here represents a romanticized notion of war, a feigned, literary, and rhetorical masculinity that has no bearing on the real experiences of the battlefield. Williams continues:

You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally... I don't give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can't learn anything from you, I can't read in some fuckin' book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I'm fascinated. I'm in. But you don't want to do that do you sport? You're terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.

The strangeness of Williams’ invocation of Henry’s line is that, perhaps in accordance with Williams’ own belief that the empty platitude fails to “encapsulate” the experience, King Henry V’s "once more" speech is itself an appeal to simulation: he calls on his soldiers to fake it, to draw on a mythical legacy and to temporarily masquerade themselves as English or British heroes, or risk deflation and death: battle in Henry V is performance, and performance in Henry V functions as a fictional cover for the incommensurate, the unpassable. 

I have argued thus far that Henry V is interested in advancing and contradicting its own rhetoric of legitimization, and this scene continues in this agenda rather than breaking away from the original as a means of establishing its own authenticity. Van Sant’s film continues in the same contradictory machinery which the play initially sets out, and which the prologue signals from the beginning, when it bemoans its inferiority even as it conscripts the audience to complete the spectacle in their mind. The prologue induces viewers—in what Jonathan Baldo refers to as a “metaphorical conscription-scene”—to complete the illusion, to internalize and make real its performative, rhetorical gestures (55). Williams’ character merely answers this call in his own fictional, dialogic fashion.

Despite Good Will Hunting’s seeming rejection of Henry’s rhetoric, and its supposed ignoring of the realities of what war does to one’s “dear friends,” Shakespearean knowledge is still treated, as in Renaissance Man, as a means of bridging a gap or filling a breach. Will Hunting’s connection to Williams’ character is predicated on the fact that Will has read the books, has the knowledge: his life experience and ability to open up would be irrelevant without his intellectually legitimizing self-education. When Williams explicitly mentions Shakespeare’s name in connection with Henry’s “once more,” this announcement of the bard is most likely intended for the audience, who are detached and remain separate from Williams and Hunting’s extensive knowledge in the canon, the common, consolidating language on which they both rely, but now must overcome in order to elevate Will’s status to the truly exceptional. 

Henry V and The Onion

The false optimism, the failure to acknowledge the horrors of war and the substance of experience which Williams ascribes to Henry’s call to action, manifests more bluntly in an article by the satirical publication The Onion titled "English Teacher Already Armed With Deadly Weapon Called Shakespeare." Amidst calls for “arming” public educators to help protect against school shootings, the article features a fictional teacher’s testification that, “if she were in an active shooter situation, she would merely quote Henry V’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech aloud to her students to give them courage and instill confidence that the pen is truly mightier than the sword.” More than merely insufficient, those who would rely on literary instruction in this case are portrayed as helpless.

Baldur's Gate

The incommensurability between Shakespearean rhetoric and the reality of experience receives similar, but more humorous treatment in the 1998 Computer Role Playing Game Baldur’s Gate. In the game, based on the Dungeons and Dragons tabletop game ruleset, a player-character (PC) selects from an assortment of nonplayable characters (NPCs) to help them on their mission. These followers come under the direct control of the main player, though each brings to the table their own personality, history, and strengths, which must be worked out and combined in order to produce a high functioning “party.” Fluellen and Macmorris are exchanged for dwarves, elves, and characters of multiple, incommensurate racial backgrounds and moral alignments who can, and will, turn on each other if not carefully managed by the player character. 

One of these “Non-playable characters” or NPCs is of the bard class. Garrick, whose bard song ability can inspire the other party members, bolstering their performance in battle, can be ordered to directly attack an enemy despite his primary use as a support character best suited to aid other NPCs from the sidelines. When ordered to attack an enemy, the character utters the scripted voiceover line, "Once more unto the breach dear friends!"

"Bladur's Gate" Video Transcript

However, if Garrick fails a save versus panic, or if he’s ordered to attack too large a group of enemies and the character’s resolve doesn’t hold, the player loses control temporarily of the NPC, who runs away from the enemies, singing “Brave, brave Sir Garrick, Sir Garrick ran away” a reference to the comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Garrick’s invocation of an idealized medieval heroism is replaced with its 20thcentury parody, thus we’re wrenched from the high to low brow reference as the bard’s resolve fails and he must recompose himself at a safe distance from the action. Garrick’s use of traditional, legitimate source material is thus deflated and replaced with the comic, lowbrow parody. His failure as a front-line fighter signals his failure to maintain the performative heroism Henry urges in his followers.

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