Focus on "Henry V":

Navigating Digital Text, Performance, & Historical Resources


Introduction  |  Henry on the Console  |  Royalty-Free Legitimacy  |  Shared Language  |  Popular Grotesque  |  Legitimacy and Tradition

King Henry V’s speeches provide popular culture with both extractable lines and rhetorical templates for the rousing, pre-battle speech of the underdog: his words—the words of an invasive force temporarily put on the defensive—are deployed in successive media at climactic or pre-climactic narrative moments in order to boost flagging morale and lead to the embodiment of some sort of heroism through martial action. The variegated uses of Henry’s rhetoric of consolidation demonstrate the extent to which Henry V’s words have been subsumed, internalized (as Shakespeare’s prologue suggests it might) and reiteratively sent out again (once more!) to fill some sort of narrative or thematic gap. Henry V’s interest in legitimizing rhetoric, in reenactment and revision—and the fraught national and masculine identity produced by these rhetorical invocations—continues to play out through the following popular culture appropriations, which extend the original play’s interest in a patterning of consolidation and dispersal, and the way identity is compelled by reiterative rhetorical performances. The uncertain division between heroism and warmongering illustrated in the following popular culture citations only emphasizes the ambivalence with which Shakespeare’s play treats Henry’s militaristic enterprise.

Henry on the Console

During the midbattle “once more” speech in Act III of Henry V, the eponymous king exhorts his followers to dissimulate a warlike aspect, to “disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage” in order to prove their legitimacy as sons of Britain, and by extension assist Henry in proving the legitimacy of his claim to the French throne (3.1.9).

"Once More Speech" Video Transcript

Two acts later, preceding the battle of Agincourt, Henry proclaims that participation in his enterprise will bind his followers to his birth and station while negating their own. He states: “he today that sheds his blood with me/shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile/this day shall gentle his condition” (4.3.63-65). The first speech urges the adoption of a nostalgic, fantastical heroism, while the second absorbs Henry’s diverse constituents into his own body and blood. Both speeches, in addition to their drawing together of past and future traditions via ritual and repetition, are interested in the rehearsal and consolidation of identity, of legitimacy obtained through unified, martial action. Henry appropriates—rhetorically and physically—his followers to his own design, as he gestures toward their inclusion in a shared identity as sons of Britain. 

"St. Crispin's Day Speech" Video Transcript 

Citations to Henry V crop up in a wide array of popular media: Star Trek, Marvel Comics, the computer game Baldur’s Gate, Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, the action blockbuster Independence Day, all feature references to at least one of Henry’s two battle speeches. A few years shy of the quadricentennial anniversary of Henry V, the Danny DeVito comedy Renaissance Man reaches its climax as Private Donnie Benitez—portrayed by Lilo Brancato Jr.—proves the worth of his academically stunted squad of ragtag military recruits by reciting Henry’s “band of brothers” speech at the prompting of his skeptical drill sergeant. In 2001, during the season five finale of the WB program Buffy the Vampire Slayer, following Buffy Summers’ fatalistically brief pre-battle speech, the unlikely vampiric ally Spike, in response to another character’s aside that the speech was “not exactly the St. Crispin’s Day speech,” refers to their ragtag group of outnumbered and outgunned comrades as “we band of buggered,” simultaneously parodying and invoking Henry V’s rhetoric of underdog solidarity. 

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Video Transcript

The “St. Crispin’s Day Speech” appears, in somewhat tailored form, a few years later in a 2008 advertisement for Sony's Playstation 3: a fake British accent supplies Henry’s lines in voiceover as the video cuts between footage of games meant to demonstrate the breadth offered by the console. To choose Sony, the advertisement suggests, is to join a coterie of unlikely yet unified consumers: brothers of a brand. In each case, Henry’s speeches are attached to narratives in which an unlikely group must come together against all odds, to efface difference and consolidate their actions and aims. 

"Playstation" Video Transcript

Royalty-Free Legitimacy

Popular culture cites Shakespeare as a means of obtaining legitimacy. The bard’s words stand for a kind of English quintessence: one can hold up a skull, strike a pensive pose, and suddenly they have been inscribed on an allusive network at the center of which sits a figure who, in many cases, is interchangeable with the idea of Englishness itself. As Margaret Tudeau-Clayton and Willy Maley explain of the intertwinement between Shakespeare and England:  

Hamlet is Hamlet in the same way that England is England, and Shakespeare is England too, since ‘Any one who reads and understands him understands England.’ Yet nobody knows what Shakespeare and England (let alone Hamlet) really stand for except for each other and an elusive—ineffable yet intuitively grasped—‘core’ or essence that, if defined at all, is defined by negation. (5)

To quote Shakespeare is to prove that one has done their homework, or passed a certain literary threshold, and to connect Shakespeare to emergent forms of media, as Lanier explains, allows new media a “royalty-free way of suggesting their cultural utility, importance, and continuity with tradition, only later to distance themselves once they gain a popular audience. Shakespeare allowed silent filmmakers, for example, to demonstrate their medium’s artistic possibilities, and to answer those who feared the cinema’s levelling social effects” (43-44).  

Shared Language

One finds this sort of invocation—Shakespeare as legitimating, stabilizing force—in Sony's PlayStation 3 advertisement, as well as the recently released computer games Into the Breach and the Kickstarter funded We Happy Few, but it also operates on the thematic level in educational breakthrough films such as Renaissance Man or Good Will Hunting, in which references to Shakespeare, and to Henry V in particular, function as a kind of rallying point for wayward characters. Henry’s words in these examples provide a means of overcoming differences: they offer a shared language through which to filter disparate backgrounds and experiences in the service of ostensible personal progress. 

"Playstation" Video Transcript

"Into the Breach" Video Transcript

"We Happy Few" Video Transcript

Douglas Lanier, discussing Shakespeare’s ubiquity, his inextricable yet contentious relationship to pop culture, remarks that the bard is evoked “as a trademark for time-tested quality and wisdom” which “lends legitimacy to whatever it is associated with,” not unlike King Henry, who lends his brotherhood out to his followers even as he exhorts them to “lend the eye a terrible aspect” (9.) Even when invoking Shakespeare for humor or parody, pop culture reinforces the open-source bard’s status as high culture. As is the case with Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Michael Ian Black's character from the short-lived Comedy Central Show Stella, who parodically quotes Henry in an appeal to his friend to help him run for the residents’ board of their apartment complex, references to Henry may be flippant or ironic, but still contribute to Shakespeare’s status and ubiquity, still manage to rehearse Henry’s ethos of consolidation in exchange for the participation of an ambivalent spectator. Even joking references to Henry’s rhetoric partake of the ritual and signal the passage into some sort of active formation of identity.

"Stella" Video Transcript

Popular Grotesque

Discussing what he terms as “popular grotesque Shakespeare,” such as the parodied Hamlet in the Schwarzenegger film The Last Action Hero, Lanier states that this sort of facetious allusion “offers a private fantasy of rebelliousness for those who have already submitted themselves to the institutional regimes and authority of high culture Shakespeare—daydreams of resistance, not open acts of dissent.” Shakespeare is both kept (or imagined) at an elitist distance from popular or mainstream culture as a paragon of cultural heritage, but his connection to popular culture is undeniable: Richard Burt’s massive, and in no way comprehensive, two-volume Shakespeares after Shakespeare features 297 allusions to Shakespeare’s plays in comic books alone. 

"The Last Action Hero" Video Transcript

In terms of popular culture’s borrowing agenda, Christy Desmet casts Michael Bristol’s notion of big and small time Shakespeare—the overriding celebrity made up of smaller, individual components—as opposing approaches to appropriating Shakespeare. “Big time Shakespeare,” or what one might call Disney Shakespeare—corporate, conservative, reactionary—sits at the far end from small-time Shakespeare, which emphasizes, as Desmet writes, “individual acts of re-vision” and, “emerges,” Desmet explains, “from local, more pointed responses to the Bard, satisfies motives ranging from play to play, to political commitment, to agonistic gamesmanship” (3). In our case, it is also necessary to separate moments of citation or allusive play from wholesale, big-time Shakespeare adaptations, such as Olivier and Branagh’s respective adaptations of Henry V (information on which can be found here): most of the allusions detailed in my discussion are often found on the lowbrow, lesser fringes of popular culture—instances of the small-time appropriating the big-time.

Legitimacy and Tradition

The model of big and small-time Shakespeare as opposed yet intertwined approaches to Shakespearean appropriations offers a useful analog to Henry V as a play in itself. I would argue that we see similarly opposed sentiments at play in Henry V, between the propagandistic, nation-building form of consolidated masculine ideology voiced in Henry’s warmongering speeches and the pluralistic, problematic set of sidelined characters who attend on and operate beneath King Henry, the play’s main rhetorical proponent of big-time consolidation. This anxious, problematic meditation on monolithic consolidation is embedded within the history plays of the 1590s which, as Howard and Rackin explain, come into vogue during a time of “national consolidation and identification” and further mark the emergence of a recognizably modern masculine sensibility, the idea of racial distinctions as we know them, and the conceptualization of the nation as a centralized structure drawn in by the centripetal power of a single monarch (14). 

Looking back to Shakespeare’s history plays—Henry V chiefly among them for its clearly patterned resistance to its own “big-time” ideas—allows contemporary readers a chance to witness the development, the nascent stages, of some of our most deeply embedded ideologies. Looking forward to popular culture references to Henry V in particular—whether the adaptive texts endorse or question Henry’s rhetoric—demonstrates the extent to which Henry’s rhetoric has been internalized by western, English culture, the extent to which Henry’s speeches, which in their original context are questioned by the play’s built-in contradictions, have come to represent touchstones for the dissolution of social categories, for the obtainment of a heroic and valorized identity via the carrying out of a centralized power’s desires. The feints Henry’s speeches make—the unidirectional martial action that temporarily dissolves boundaries of class, culture, or language—are dispersed widely through popular culture yet continue in the play’s rehearsal of identity through repetitive ritual, through the rewriting of history, and through a gambit that hinges—like popular allusions to Shakespeare—on legitimacy. 

What makes the Henry speeches notable amidst various other popular culture appropriations of Shakespeare, is the play’s built-in interest in its own legitimizing power: it seemingly resists decontextualization while at the same time Henry’s speeches conscript listeners and unlikely allies, asking them to decontextualize themselves. Unlike popular citations to other Shakespeare plays—such as Polonius’ platitudinous, banal “to thine own self be true”—references to and uses of Henry’s lines seem to reinforce the original play’s contentious relationship with its own rhetoric of inclusivity and consolidation, its own simultaneous invocation and questioning of legitimacy and tradition. 

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