At the end of Henry IV Part 2, the dying King gives a piece of advice to his son as he bemoans how deeply political tension is likely to lead to a civil war and affects the England that is “[…] sick with civil blows […]” (4.5.288). Henry IV failed to unite his kingdom, and it will be the first challenge of Henry V as it is announced by the dying King to his son: “Be it thy cause to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels, / that action, hence born out, may waste the memory of the former days” (4.3.372-5). The solution to the current domestic issues is therefore an international war—changing the focus from internal disorder to an external disorder. Henry V decides to follow his father’s advice, using the war against France as a palliative strategy with no curative intent to deal with the domestic issues. His politics of distraction aim at spinning a tale to persuade his people to focus on what brings them together instead of seeing what draws them apart.
Henry’s approach is reminiscent of the tactic used by Roman politicians, panem et circenses. The Romans used this tactic to manipulate the people and distract them from real issues by providing food and entertainment. Likewise, Henry plans to tell the tale of the English nation to flatter the ego of his people and distract them from other problems. We may infer that the war against France is a kind of entertainment; it is a tool Henry uses to create a narrative, a fiction, a tale about the identity of England. In this play, Henry is spinning a yarn—the tale of the nation. To do so, he resorts to ethnic markers to define the dialectics of identity and alterity used as the normative structure from which Englishness emerges.
Ay, there’s the rub… because “England,” in the play, does not only refer to England, but it implicitly contains Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. It is a metonymy of the British Empire. In the early modern period, England colonized enough parts of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland to be regarded as an imperial power. This status raises the question of nationhood: how did the English deal with their colonies? To what extent did they use Wales, Ireland, and Scotland to define themselves?
On the one hand, Henry’s speeches emphasize the unity of his kingdom and the fact that they are all members of the same nation, living in harmony and fighting together as one. On the other hand, as we look closer, there is a significant discrepancy between words and deeds—Henry’s army is far from being united and the internal issues that Henry IV failed to nip in the bud still arise here and there.
As the war against France unfolds, the gap between telling and showing widens. In Henry’s army, there is no ideal unity but tension, no perfect order but chaos, no true solidarity but hostility. The tale of the united English nation is but a tale told by a King struggling to spin a yarn to control his people. The second part of 3.2, also called “the Captains’ scene,” encapsulates the specificities of the discourse of the nation developed throughout the play while emphasizing its many inconsistencies. In this symbolic scene (from 3.2.56 to 3.2.143), we understand how ethnic markers are used to create the idea of the nation, the complexities and inconsistencies of the very concept “of nation,” as well as the extent to which it is closely linked to race or ethnicity.
The Captains’ scene is a study on how to spin a good yarn. This essay aims to emphasize three main ideas that will explain which ethnic markers are selected and shape the English nation as a diversion technique that deals with the domestic political crisis. It will do this by first examining the tale of the English center and the Celtic margins; then focusing on the narratives of Fluellen, the civilized other, and Jamy and MacMorris, the barbarians; and finally, the case of a subaltern not striking back.