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National Identity in Henry V
Henry V redefines England through a Machiavellian ethics of war when discussing the issue of the casus belli with Canterbury and Ely, for example the interpretation of the Salic law that gives Henry “[a] rightful hand in a well-hallowed cause” to invade France (H5, 1.2.306). To win the impending civil war Henry faces at home, he needs to fight a foreign country to federate all his people against a common enemy. Even before the beginning of the play, we may infer that the war against France has already been decided—the play opens with a discussion about a war against France that is already under way.
Henry Spinning Yarn
It is not ideology but pragmatism—even Machiavellian pragmatism—that encourages Henry to think of waging war against France. Henry wants to appear as a custodian of order and a source of political harmony as is stated by Exeter: “For government, though high and low and lower, / Put into parts, doth keep in one consent, / Congreeing in a full and natural close, / Like music” (H5, 1.2.187-90).
In the scene under study here (from 3.2.56 to 3.2.143), Captain Gower is made a metaphor of England and imitates Henry’s approach. As he is the first to speak, his word is almighty and acts as a cue for the other characters to start speaking too (H5, 3.2.56-8). His speech has a performative quality as he opens the scene, but also when he puts an end to the argument between Fluellen and MacMorris (H5, 3.2.139).
Gower does not speak much in this scene, but he is made central because of the moments when he speaks and the impact that his words have on the other characters. Through Gower, power is centralized in England, and the other characters representing Scotland, Wales, and Ireland are de facto marginalized.
Then, Henry defines the English nation by articulating ethnicity and gender: he turns his soldiers into a “band of brothers” (H5, 4.3.62) linked together by a performance of powerful masculinity on the battlefield through the threat of rape (H5, 3.3.20-21).
The Chorus insists on the fact that Henry “[…] goes and visits all his host, / Bids them good morrow with a modest smile, / And calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen.” (H5, 4.Prologue.33-35). He capitalizes on the shared masculine values of brothers to create a common ground between the different people enlisted in his army—whether Scottish, Irish, Welsh, or English, all of them are men and have the same gender. With the threat of mass rape, Henry does not only threaten the fate of women, but the fate of the whole French nation—the very purity of the French blood or the French race (H5, 3.3.33-38).
This very threat is more developed than the others about the slaughter of infants and elderly people because women are the future of the nation thanks to their reproductive abilities. They are the vulnerability of the nation, for without them, there cannot be new generations (H5, 3.3.11-14).
Henry empowers his own army with these threats of mass rape by giving them the opportunity to feel the strength of a masculine power able to invade, seize by force, and exert virility with impunity.
If Henry’s army seems at first to be united on the battlefield through this performance of gender, inconsistencies emerge as we look closer; for instance, the diversity of the English languages displayed in the Captains’ scene also displays England’s disunity. Jamy, Fluellen, and MacMorris speak the same language in this scene, and all of them have been compelled to use the language of the English colonizer.
Despite the linguistic imperialism the captains experience, they still cannot pass as English. Moreover, each captain has his own way of speaking English. The three of them are captains so they have the same responsibilities in the army; everything should unite them as a “band of brothers” (H5, 4.3.62), but contrary to Henry’s vision, they only see one another as a “band of Others.”
This scene, displaying regional dialects of English, is intended to make the audience laugh at the three captains because of their accents, solocisms, and other linguistic idiosyncrasies. They are meant to be a laughing stock, because they are marginalized figures.
It is a scene of humiliation for the marginalized Celts whose speech mannerisms become comic triggers. This passage relies on cultural ventriloquism which is based on racism and the logic of epideictic speech—humiliating one to elevate the other, according to the dialectics of praise and blame. The three Captains are given the dramatic function of alleviating the tragic tension of the war against France in a scene of racist comic relief at their expense.3.2.56 to 3.2.143) tells the tale of the nation by separating the English center from the Celtic margins. It is also worth noticing that the giddy minds of those “not speak[ing]/ English in the native garb” are not busied with foreign quarrels, as Henry IV would have wanted, but with domestic quarrels (H5, 5.2.79-80). The scene under study is also devoted to the tale of the civilized other and the barbarian ones.
Fluellen may be Welsh, but he is given better treatment than the Irish and Scot characters in the play. The King admits to Fluellen that he is Welsh as well, thus emphasizing an ethnic connection between them (H5, 4.7.111). Fluellen is appreciated by the King who often interacts with him; as a whole, Fluellen has much more stage visibility than Jamy and MacMorris—Fluellen speaks sixty-eight times throughout the play, while Jamy and MacMorris only speak four times. In the play, he seems to be granted what I call a “Welsh privilege.”
Fluellen’s alterity is accepted because he shows no resistance to English authority; he praises the King by comparing him to great military leaders and is given a choric function throughout the play (H5, 4.7.45-51). We could argue that he is shown hospitality while MacMorris is shown hostility.
Moreover, Fluellen is also given the possibility to defend himself when Pistol insults him for being Welsh (H5, 5.1.23-71). Gower also comes to his rescue by referring to the Welsh cultural heritage as worthy of respect. Fluellen can strike back when he is attacked contrary to MacMorris. He acts as an anglicized Welshman and speaks as a well-assimilated colonized subject.
At the beginning of the play, Henry evokes the possibility of a Scottish rebellion as he discusses with Ely and Canterbury—as he puts it himself, the Scots are “[…] still a giddy neighbour to us” (H5, 1.2.151). Even if some of them are loyalists, the Scots are introduced as a potential threat for the English (H5, 1.2.152-60).
In our scene, Gower refers to Jamy as “the Scots captain” as if he were the only one in the army (H5, 3.2.76; emphasis mine). We may infer that his presence within Henry’s military force is more like a symbol of England’s politics of containment rather than an enthusiastic commitment of the Scots to support Henry in his campaign.
Through Jamy’s character, Scotland is shown as a contained threat—he is not acting as a serious threat, but as a passive observer who is only there to be laughed at by the English. He may be praised for being an outstanding warrior (H5, 3.2.78-84), but he confesses to being tired and thinking of taking a nap right in the middle of the battlefield (H5, 3.2.116-21). Thus, the fear of a Scottish invasion is exorcised, and the Scots’ captain is turned into a lazy fool.
Irish-English ConflictWhen the play was written in 1599, England was at war with Ireland in what was then called the Nine Years’ War (1593-1603). It was the largest conflict involving England in the Elizabethan period for which more than 10,000 men had been deployed. The Irish started a rebellion against the advance of the English rule in Ireland with the help of Scottish mercenaries, “the Redshanks.”
During the 1590s, many writers advocated the English propaganda promoting the colonization in Ireland. For instance, Edmund Spenser’s A Present View of Ireland (1596) was one of the most significant texts praising the English colonization. The work presented it as a necessary war for the sake of civilization in the fight against barbarians: “[the Irish] are both very barbarous and uncivill and greatly given to warre […] therefore since now we purpose to drawe the Irish from desire of warre and tumults, to the love of peace and civylitye.”
Interestingly, Gower praises MacMorris before he enters the stage (H5, 3.2.68-9), but it is Fluellen’s statement which makes him sound even more English than the English captain Gower (H5, 3.2.72-5).
We have observed that this scene is the tale of a band of Others not treated on a par; the Welsh Fluellen is regarded as the Civilized Other and the other two, the Irish MacMorris and the Scottish Jamy, are marginalized as Barbarian Others.
This very difference is made even more obvious as Fluellen insults MacMorris: “Captain MacMorris, I think, look you, under your correction, there is not many of your nation—” (H5, 3.2.122-4). Eventually, the passage under study (from 3.2.56 to 3.2.143) becomes a scene of ethnic insult in which the subaltern does not speak back.
Context, Insults, and InterpretationsNorman Rabkin pointed out the extent to which the play is ambiguous in his seminal article “Either/Or: Responding to Henry V,” in which he explains that it may be read as a heroic play or as a cynical one about war. His metaphor of the rabbit-duck interpretation seems relevant to emphasize how ambiguous Fluellen’s comment to MacMorris is.
In some productions of the play, it is performed as a genuine question with no malevolent intent. However, it can also be interpreted as an insult intended to harm MacMorris and stigmatize him even further.
The context makes it possible to interpret this comment as an insult—because Fluellen insults MacMorris even before he enters the stage (H5, 3.2.72-5), we may reasonably think that he insults him in this passage as well. The use of the pronoun “your” (H5, 3.2.123) rejects MacMorris as an outsider not allowed to be part of the “our”—MacMorris is marginalized as Fluellen implicitly makes himself a member of Henry’s nation.
Through this insult, Fluellen alludes to the ongoing war against Ireland, implying that they are barbarians unaware of all the good things English civilization could bring them.
The unease created by this insult has been faced by all the directors staging the play. Either they decide to cut the scene or to stage it by adding props, body language, and elements of scenography to emphasize the racism of the insult, essentializing the Irish as an insignificant whole.
Interrupting Fluellen (H5, 3.2.125-7), MacMorris repeats the part of Fluellen’s statement that represents the core of the insult: “Of my nation?” (H5, 3.2.125). His response to the insult is as ambiguous as the insult itself and can be interpreted in two opposite ways.
On the one hand, it may be understood as the statement of a loyalist, offended because someone dared doubting the commitment and loyalty of the Irish. On the other hand, it may be regarded as a sign of resistance with MacMorris asking Fluellen to stop beating around the bush and call a spade a spade: “What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal?” (H5, 3.2.125-6).
He is well-aware of what kind of racist discourse targets the Irish as savages and confronts Fluellen by saying out loud what Fluellen, and most likely the early modern English audience as well, knew already.
We could argue that MacMorris’ response relies on the logic of the mirror; by being straightforward and explicitly telling what was alluded to in the insult, MacMorris empowers himself by refusing to play the ironic game and imposes his own rule.
After being insulted, MacMorris is only allowed to speak twice (H5, 3.2.125-7; 3.2.135-6), but he does not get to strike back as Fluellen does with Pistol and the leek incident (H5, 5.1.15-71). He is forced to remain silent and to listen to Fluellen have the last word both figuratively and literally, for he is the last one to speak in this scene (H5, 3.2.140-3).
MacMorris’ forced silence is a political statement insofar as it symbolizes the English almighty authority preventing the Irish from rebelling with a dramatic gag order. The question asked by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivack in her 1988 essay “Can the Subaltern Speak” is relevant to analyze this scene of racist insult.
As the subaltern figure of the scene, MacMorris cannot speak as an individual subject, for he is reduced to being the Other reified to be used as a foil. He is the fruit of “baser quality” enabling the English and Fluellen, as well as a loyalist colonized subject, to grow and “thrive,” according to the metaphors developed by Ely at the beginning (H5, 1.1.63-9).