By Markéta Šonková
It is no news that famous writings and cultural pieces have been, and continue to be used or interpreted differently than might have been their original literary purpose, often as a means to legitimize or explain actions of certain individual(s). This has been the case no matter what ideology or movement was holding the reins. However, not all kinds of content manipulation necessarily serve as a support of totalitarian regimes: they can also serve as a means to boost the morale of a war-tested nation, as is to be seen in Laurence Olivier’s 1944 Henry V movie adaptation or to send a political message in Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version. Truth be told, Henry V is an ambiguous text in today’s terms, allowing for various readings, which has been used several times by movie makers to pass on various messages while adapting one of the most famous pieces of British drama.
Propaganda (in) theory
Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell in their book Propaganda and Persuasion identify three types of propaganda: black, gray, and white. Black propaganda is when “the source is concealed or credited to a false authority and spreads lies, fabrications, and deceptions. Black propaganda is the ‘big lie,’ including all types of creative deceit . . . and this type of propaganda gets the most attention when it is revealed” (Jowett and O’Donnell, 2012: 18 and 20). The examples of black propaganda were Joseph Goebbels’s activities as Hitler’s minister of propaganda during World War II, or a book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion written in 1903 by Czar Nicholas II’s secret police that portrayed Jews as demonic schemers. This work was later used during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, it was cited by Hitler in his book Mein Kampf, as well as it appeared in media in some of the Arab nations in the early 2000s (ibid: 18).
Gray propaganda is “somewhere between white and black propaganda. The source may or may not be correctly identified, and the accuracy of the information is uncertain” (ibid: 20). Since the psychological effect of propaganda is well known, governments as well as the private sector can turn to using gray propaganda techniques to achieve their goals. Examples can be video news releases, often of a promotional character, that have been increasingly inserted in news TV programs ever since the 1980s. Another example of gray propaganda were activities of the US government during the Cold War: in the late 1940s and 1950s, both Truman’s and Eisenhower’s administrations issued texts that were to be run in media to propagandize the American public and since the original source was not disclosed to the readers, it can fall under the gray propaganda category. In fact, gray propaganda is widespread: “companies that distort statistics on annual reports, advertising that suggests a product will achieve results that it cannot, films that are made solely for product placement, and television evangelists who personally keep the money they solicit for religious causes all tend to fall in the gray propaganda category” (Jowett and O’Donnell, 2012: 23).
Lastly, white propaganda “comes from a source that is identified correctly, and the information in the message tends to be accurate. . . . Although what listeners hear is reasonably close to the truth, it is presented in a manner that attempts to convince the audience that the sender is the ‘good guy’ with the best ideas and political ideology. White propaganda attempts to build credibility with the audience, for this could have usefulness at some point in the future” (Jowett and O’Donnell, 2012: 17). It is national celebrations “with their overt patriotism and regional chauvinism [that] can usually be classified as white propaganda” (ibid: 17). Additionally, international sports competitions, especially the Olympic Games, can equally inspire white propaganda narratives or camera work from journalists.
Why Shakespeare and why Henry V?
In the introduction to the book Shakespeare and the Second World War: Memory, Culture, Identity, Irena R. Makaryk claims that “Shakespeare’s works occupy a prismatic and complex position in world culture: they straddle both the high and the low, the national and the foreign, literature and theatre” (2012: 4). She also claims that in times of war and crises, “belligerents have laid claim to Shakespeare and have called upon his work to convey their society’s self-image” (2012: 4), since wars very often bring up cultural crises as well as crises of identity. In attempts to boost a nation’s morale in such crises, a “universal author”, a bard, could help the struggling nation, as they can provide a link between the past and the presence. This is why Shakespeare was brought to light once again, and also why Henry V reappeared – both of them are British national heroes.
In fact, Shakespeare’s position started, once again, to change in the inter-war periods: “In the tumultuous period between the First and the Second World War, Shakespeare was performed in the context of social and political transformation, as new models of government and new political systems formed on the Continent” and after the horrors of Second World War, “Shakespeare was identified as a healing force, a cultural icon, and a universal genius who transcended political conflicts and opened the possibility of a shared European identity” (Mancewicz). But what about during the Second World War and the crises afterwards?
The biggest of patriots
Henry V has usually been perceived as a patriotic play celebrating “one of the most charismatic monarchs in British history” (Watts, 2000: 9). Although the text is, in today’s perception, ambiguous in places in terms of whether Shakespeare’s Henry V was a ruthless warmonger or even a war criminal, it was mainly after the 1960s when the anti-war interpretations undermining the purely patriotic tone started to appear (Hilský, 2010: 387). Nonetheless, the importance and popularity of the play has usually risen during war periods because of its patriotic undertone – with Laurence Olivier’s adaptation being one of the most prominent examples (Hilský, 2010: 387).
Moreover, the themes of the play have kept its topicality since 1599: “Shakespeare’s history plays, while dealing with the past, had clear relevance to contemporary events” (Watts, 2000: 13), with Henry V largely supporting this statement, as two of the most famous adaptations – Olivier’s 1944 movie and Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 adaptation – also mark important events in British as well as world history: the approaching end of World War II and the post-Vietnam and post-Falklands wars periods respectively. The most recent screen dramatization – Thea Sharrock’s Hollow Crown episode with Tom Hiddleston in the lead role – also celebrated an important year in British modern history: 2012 and London’s hosting of the Olympic Games, as well as Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.
Real-life Henry vs. Shakespeare’s Henry
Shakespeare respected the historical facts but also amended some of them to fit his intended scenario of the play. It is important to mention, though, that not only Shakespeare’s main sources – Holinshed’s and Hall’s chronicles – do not entirely correspond with today’s idea of a reliable historical source, but that he also purposefully manipulated some of the historical facts (Hilský, 2010: 388). As a result, the transformation of character that Hal1 had undergone by the end of Henry IV was not necessarily true; however, it made sense in the context of the whole Shakespeare’s tetralogy2.
On one hand, it is historically accurate that Henry V was trying to atone for his father’s deeds in connection to Richard II’s death, there was indeed one soldier executed at Harfleur, and that real-life Henry really had to face a noblemen’s plot (but with a more complex cause than that which the play describes). On the other hand, the timeline and details of the battle of Agincourt do not quite follow the historical course of events, the real bishop of Canterbury was very unlikely to be involved in the discussions regarding Salic Law3, and the incident with tennis balls4 did not happen at all (Hilský, 2010: 382-389). Shakespeare also conveniently omits the fact that the French king suffered from a mental illness as it might have harmed the perception of the whole quest. It is true that the prisoners of war were killed on the fields of Agincourt, however, for reasons related to war strategy, and not as a result of the king’s burst of anger (Hilský, 2010: 382-389). Thus, it comes as no surprise that even Shakespeare’s followers sometimes tend to interpret the character of Henry V in their adaptations to fit their purpose.
The Rabbit and the Duck: Warmonger or a genius tactician and Christian king?
Given the already mentioned ambiguity of the character, it is no surprise that this element of the play also grasped the attention of academia. The central idea of Norman Rabkin’s 1977 essay “Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V” corresponds with Hilský’s theory that after the period of the 1960s, the reading of the play started to become more ambiguous, with Rabkin correspondingly listing the two main readings following the understanding split: the first reading represents “the story of an ideal monarch and glorifies his achievements [and] the tone approaches that of an epic lauding the military virtues”, while the second reading – diametrically different – represents Henry V as “a Machiavellian militarist who profess[es] Christianity but whose deeds reveal both hypocrisy and ruthlessness [and] the tone is predominantly one of mordant satire” (Wentersdorf in Rabkin, 1977: 279).
There is evidence for both readings and thus Rabkin uses the simile of “a rabbit and a duck” to describe the content discrepancy, based on the famous optical illusion sketch. He claims that in the context of the two preceding plays within the tetralogy, the transformed Hal in Henry V represents both the optimistic joyful man from the first part of Henry IV, but also the darkening character that started to emerge in the second part of Henry IV – just like the illusion of the rabbit and the duck (Rabkin, 1977: 285). Therefore, he offers a third reading of the play, taking into account the rabbit and the duck complementing each other (Rabkin, 1977: 295-296). Watts also talks about the ambiguity of the play and about the difficulty of any definitive reading, but he approaches the topic mostly from the point of view of different layers of the character of Henry V (2000: 15): he sees a very pious and introspective Christian king conflicting with the role of a martial king (2000: 17). It is this ambiguity that enabled Henry V to be interpreted so differently – the individual authors emphasized what was already in the play, but they picked or omitted selected parts and thus usually presented either the rabbit or the duck (Rabkin, 1977: 285).
The paradox of this conflict is more than evident: “He [Henry] demands loyalty and punishes rebels; yet he himself is the son of a usurper who had successfully rebelled against Richard” (Watts, 2000: 17) – he has little right to the throne of England yet he claims the right for the French one. Thus, his asking God for forgiveness before the battle of Agincourt might be seen as an attempt to atone as well as him being a hypocrite (Watts, 2000: 17). The moment of victory might then be seen as God finally giving his blessing to the new dynasty, with Henry appearing as a great unifier of the realms (Watts, 2000: 18) which is what is usually interpreted as the patriotic message of the play.
Watts, nevertheless, still stresses the paradox that the “Henry who sought God’s blessing on his campaign is the Henry who threatens to unleash, on Harfleur, troops who will resemble ‘Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen’” (2000: 18). Regardless of the greatness of the victory at Agincourt, the Epilogue brings up the final ambiguity, with the reader being reminded that the achievements were short-lived due to the historic circumstances5 (Watts, 2000: 19). However, the historical and cultural importance of the play is still undeniable and so its topicality, as in Henry V Shakespeare “reveals the conflict between the private selves with which we are born and the public selves we must become” (Rabkin, 1977: 296) which keeps being reflected in the contemporary political arena as well as beyond.
Olivier’s Henry V: The hero of the World War II audience
Olivier’s highly theatrical, Western-style 1944 adaptation of Henry V is now considered to be a product of the World War II propaganda aiming at boosting the British population’s and soldiers’ morale and at glamorizing war. It was Churchill’s government who funded the movie in order to dedicate it to the RAF pilots, with the idea being that just like “Henry and his men [were] going into the Battle of Agincourt, the Brits were up against insurmountable odds with little or no hope of overcoming them” (Hook). In fact, Churchill even used some of Henry’s lines in his speech to the RAF. Moreover, “Olivier was determined to project Henry as the kind of heroic figure wartime audiences would warm to and be inspired by”, which, however required the scriptwriters Olivier and Alan Dent to remove 50% of the play’s content (Hindle, 2007: 140-141, 146). Thus, Olivier is not rewriting the play, but he is picking the parts that suit his intentions.
Not only did he cut the passages that might have shed negative or ambiguous light on his Henry, but he also portrayed the French as more vain and incompetent than the play itself does. Even though Charles VI indeed suffered of a mental condition, Shakespeare never mentions it in his play (Hilský, 2010: 388); nonetheless, Olivier opted for the French king to appear even weaker than the rest of the French to contrast his strong and heroic English king – Henry. The resulting effect strengthened the idea of “Britishness” in the contemporary audience, which was desirable in the time of war. Regardless of its propaganda motives, the film was of great importance as it “provided the seed that created the first flowering of great Shakespeare films” (Crowl, 2007: 22).
The disposition of Olivier’s Henry is different from the character that the play was based on: “Olivier eliminates Henry’s darker qualities and removes the ironies and ambiguities that Shakespeare builds into the character (and play) to shade his appeal” (Crowl, 2007: 22). As a result, his Henry is psychologically static and non-evolving, as his “personality is complete at the start” (Donaldson, 1991: 68). The film character, despite being static, appears so confident and heroic that Olivier’s Henry gives an impression of an unapproachable yet noble and charismatic leader.
His strength and unyielding disposition are apparent in both the military and private aspects of the character – in fact, they do not really split in Olivier’s adaptation. When he is wooing Katherine, the French king’s daughter, he almost shouts at her6 during his speech, and when she tries to refuse to be kissed, he does not respect the customs she grew up with, which indicates who the leader in this power play was (dir.: Olivier, 1944: 2:03:56 & 2:05:06). Similarly, his firm grip of her hand (2:05:10) and close-up on the rings with his hand over hers, covering the French emblem, showed that he was the one in control of the situation (Donaldson, 1991, 69).
Olivier cut out selected passages of the play in order to meet the purposes of the film: the creation of a national hero. Throughout the movie there is a heightened emphasis on the king’s piety: the clergymen at the beginning of the movie praise him as a “true lover of the Holy Church” (0:08:00), Henry describes himself as “no tyrant but a Christian king” (0:18:17), and he repeatedly turns to God to thank him. He is portrayed as a merciful king who pardons a man who offended him (0:29:15) and after conquering Harfleur, he orders his men to “use mercy to them all” (0:52:14). To maximize the effect, the scene that should follow the pardon – sentencing the treacherous noblemen – is cut out completely and the controversial speech following the conquest of Harfleur is missing as well.
Olivier portrays a king who talks to his subjects, but he appears to be quite impersonal in doing so: in his Crispin’s Day Speech (1:26:54-1:29:06), he appears very charismatic, but theatrical and thus not quite natural. The speech has both spatial and vocal development, but it is highly theatrical and stylized, which in the end evokes no intimacy between him and his men. Other cuts were employed in order to “play down Henry’s violent side”: the execution of Bardolph, the pre-Agincourt prayer when he acknowledges his father’s sins, killing the French prisoners, as well as the epilogue mentioning that his victories were short-lived, were all cut from the script. Even though Olivier kept the scene where Williams expresses his doubts about the quest, he deliberately left out the bet between the two characters, as breaking an oath might negatively influence the perception of the king.
It is also important to mention that Olivier’s movie was technologically new. It was shot in Technicolor and was the most expensive British movie ever made at that time (IMDb). It also drew on the fact that people in Britain were already used to listening to Shakespeare on the radio, so bringing him to movie theatres, which elegantly combined with the increased cinema-going numbers during the war, was a smart step to take.
Branagh’s war skepticism at the turn of the century
Kenneth Branagh’s Henry is diametrically different. Shot in the period after the Vietnam and Falklands wars, marked by “scepticism [that] infiltrated the depiction of war and of war-leaders” (Watts, 2000: 10), Branagh’s adaptation presents both contempt for, and fascination of, war, typical for Vietnam War films which he was inspired by (Cartmell, 2000: 105). His setting is dark and his portrayal of the battles is brute, muddy, and bloody. His Henry V explores “the dark corners of the young king’s development” (Crowl, 2007: 37).
Thus, Branagh at first presents the dark Machiavellian prince: “we begin with Henry as an impenetrable mask of monarchy, presented as ruthless, distrustful and potentially evil” (Cartmell, 2000: 102), which is in contrast to Olivier’s colorful and heroic, although aloof, portrayal. In the course of the film, Henry starts to look more human, as he opens up with his emotions, which gradually show his inner self that is missing in Olivier’s performance.
This starts indirectly by Branagh presenting various flashbacks from Henry’s earlier life, through sharing Henry’s inner fears and feelings, for example when Henry cries during his pre-Agincourt prayer and by admitting the anxiety caused by his father’s guilt (dir.: Branagh, 1989: 1:27:26-1:28:56). By the end of his rite of passage, he starts showing his deep emotions openly among his men: his Crispin’s Day Speech evokes a sense of intimacy thanks to the close-ups and sincerity with which he talks to his men.
Unlike Olivier, Branagh does not try to avoid the ambiguity of Henry’s character. He keeps in the Southampton scene with traitors7 as well as most of the Harfleur speech. Although he cuts short the challenge imposed on him by Williams, and thus avoids the situation when Henry would need to openly break his promise. He also very emotively shows the execution of Bardolph (1:03:25), with alternate close-ups on both men’s faces that are tried by their emotions and with a flashback that highlights the brutality of the scene. Additionally, his Henry indeed does make an order to execute the French prisoners, but only as a punishment for the murder of the boys accompanying the troops to the Battle of Agincourt.
Nevertheless, Branagh’s Henry is not a tyrant. He needs to keep the military morale and therefore needs to make sacrifices. His deeply emotive inner self is shown in times of emotional hardship: when awaiting the French attack during the Battle of Agincourt, there is a close-up on Henry’s face that is tried by terror and anxiety (1:37:15). Similarly, when he is wooing Katherine, he appears almost clumsy, but sounds sincerer than Olivier who was just performing another type of conquest – in the end, one would believe that Branagh’s Henry really is unable to be gentler (2:03:12-2:10:30).
His sensitive self is shown both directly – by his actions – as well as indirectly. As for the indirect means, it is mostly the camera work that exposes the emotiveness of the character. Branagh often employs close-ups and sharp contrasts. The long tracking shot of Henry carrying the body of the killed boy (1:55:24-1:59:06) is a combination of both means. It is also probably the emotional climax of the film and was described by Branagh himself as the “film’s climactic critique of war” (Branagh in Lehmann, 2002: 211), showing the price that is paid for waging wars. His adaptation seems to carry a deep political message, unlike that of Olivier, which was aimed at the general population and their morale and by extension also at legitimizing engagement in war, rather than condemning it. Unlike Olivier, Branagh does not use Shakespeare to propagandize a cause, but he uses him to send a message with far-reaching consequences.
Neutrality after all? Thea Sharrock and one man’s rite of passage
Thea Sharrock’s 2012 adaptation is interesting in its neutrality: she understands Henry V as a play about a war and about one man’s journey to learn how to be a king (Sharrock in Review) and thus she does not cut out the ambivalent passages. Therefore, her adaptation with Tom Hiddleston brings no added value in terms of propagandist elements of the play, yet her understanding of the play sheds further light on Olivier as well as Branagh: “Henry V is a play which, in the past, has been used both to justify war (as in Olivier’s 1944 version) and expose its horrors (Branagh’s, in 1989). But Sharrock was not going to be drawn on a definitive line here” (Lawrence, 2012). For her, Henry V is a “play about war and it’s a play about . . . one man’s journey through learning to be a king, not knowing how to do it, not knowing what the next thing he’s gonna have to deal with is gonna be” (Sharrock in Review 0:56). This is very similar to Hiddleston’s own understanding:
“People have inherited [Laurence] Olivier’s film as the definitive version, but the play itself is much more ambiguous, and the character of Henry V is not a hero without flaws, and he’s full of doubt and insecurity, and I wanted to bring that doubt and insecurity up and honour the text and make sure it was a complex reading of a young man who was discovering himself and thinking about the nature of warfare as he goes through it” (Hiddleston in Bernstein, 2013).
Although Henry is more intimate and close to his men in Sharrock’s adaptation, he still is hard-bitten. Hiddleston delivers almost the entire text of Henry’s speech when entering the gates of Harfleur (dir.: Sharrock: 45:10-47:12). Sharrock assumes that it is an important moment in his development, because she thinks that “he shocks himself at what he says” and that it has “effect on him thereafter” (Sharrock in “Shakespeare Uncovered”, 1:13). Her adaptation is also the only one that openly shows Bardolph looting and being caught by York (0:44:29-0:44:39). On the other hand, his execution is not shown so the order does not come directly from Henry as with Branagh, but Hiddleston only arrives to see Bardolph dead hanging from a tree (0:56:24). Even though he confirms that this is what will happen to anyone with the same transgression, he still experiences a flashback8 and the viewer sees that there are more layers of his personality.
Throughout the film, his wise and kind private self is used more often unless he is exposed to a situation in which he needs to exercise authority; then he uses his public self which in the course of the movie hardens rather than softens, unlike Branagh’s. Probably the most important element influencing the understanding of the character of Sharrock’s Henry is his decision to execute the French prisoners after learning that the “French have reinforced their scattered men” (1:39:05): he orders the execution for strategic reasons and not because of the killed boys. She is also the only one who keeps the entire twist with Williams and the glove, but she leaves out the episode with traitors in Southampton. Her Henry is neither pro-war nor anti-war, he is something in between.
Thus, Sharrock is the only director who does not avoid some of the most “unpleasant” aspects of Henry’s character but displays them quite openly because she thinks that “if Henry V is about anything, then it’s about the nature of war” and she wanted to display how the wars are won (Sharrock in “Shakespeare Uncovered”, 1:37). Interestingly enough, Thea Sharrock’s adaptation of the play for BBC Two was made as a part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad (Singh, 2011), which was “a nationwide programme of the UK’s best arts and culture running alongside the Games” (Arts Council), so although not propagandist in its essence, it contributed to spread of the overt patriotism that Jowell and O’Donnel label as one of the white propaganda techniques.
Where does it all leave Henry?
All the three adaptations exhibit similarities; however, the resulting Henrys are different – the ambiguity of the play allows for different portrayals and each of the directors picked the elements that suited their artistic goals. Olivier’s Henry is heroic Western-style war propaganda with an emotionally static king who experiences no conflict between his private and public selves. Branagh created a realistic and naturalistic, dark and gloomy post-Vietnam and post-Falklands War Henry who shows signs of the conflict between his private and public selves. On the other hand, his Henry shows signs of emotional development, unlike Olivier’s Henry (Donaldson, 1991: 68). With Sharrock’s Henry, the difference between the private and public selves is also visible, although his private self is more openly and more often used. Hiddleston, when portraying the private self, appears youthful, kind and down-to-earth, while his portrayal of the public self is tough, passive-aggressive in speech and sometimes openly aggressive in action. He has two distinct “faces” that he employs in different situations and in front of different people. Hiddleston, as well as Branagh, also seem more natural than Olivier, who is very theatrical in his speech. All the three Henrys are very pious, though.
To sum up, each of the adaptations presents the viewer with a different Henry. The reason for this was the message the director wanted to communicate: Olivier needed to boost the morale of the war-tested nation and thus he excavated a historic figure in order to celebrate the heroic past of England. To do this, he needed to dispose of any ambiguities that would shed a negative light on Henry. His Henry is an inspirational and pious leader, who leads his nation to victory. The entire film is a patriotic piece of art. Branagh made his film at the end of the Cold War, in the light of scepticism resulting from the wars of the second half of the century. His Henry V is more brutal and dark and the king shows internal conflict. He is tough, but more intimate and emotional, and the entire adaptation bears signs of an anti-war message. Sharrock’s and Hiddleston’s Henry was created to accompany the Olympic Games of 2012. Sharrock did not opt to cut controversial parts of the play and as a result, she is textually closest to the Henry from Shakespeare’s play: he shows contrasts between the private and public selves that are distinctly identifiable, however emotionally less loud. Even though Branagh and Sharrock show signs of drawing on the preceding adaptation, each of the three adaptations is still unique and shows a different Henry V. Either way, all three of them show the importance of both the historical figure behind the play lines as well as the importance of the Bard himself, who keeps re-emerging when the occasion calls for it, just as Irena R. Makaryk suggested.
This article is based on author’s earlier research conducted at Keele University, UK for the module “Shakespeare on Film: Adaptation and Appropriation”, where it resulted in an essay “A comparative analysis of the character of Henry V in three film and television adaptations”.
- Hal is the name the character of Henry V is represented under during the two plays preceding Henry V – that is before he became the king.
- Henry V is the fourth play in the series called the “Henriad”, being preceded by Richard II, Henry IV part I, and Henry IV part II.
- “Salic Law of Succession, the rule by which, in certain sovereign dynasties, persons descended from a previous sovereign only through a woman were excluded from succession to the throne. Gradually formulated in France, the rule takes its name from the code of the Salian Franks, the Lex Salica” (“Salic Law of Succession”).
- In the play, Henry is given a chest full of tennis balls as a mockery from Dauphin – a mockery of his youth and as a response to Henry’s claim to the French throne.
- Henry V died of dysentery before he was able to claim the French throne (he was due to be crowned after death of the incumbent French king). His son, Henry VI, whom he had with the French king’s daughter, was an infant at that time, unable to rule.
- Which corresponds with Donaldson’s theory that the authority of Olivier’s Henry tends to be exercised through his voice (1991, 63).
- Act 2, scene 2
- In the same manner as Branagh used flashback in his adaptation to show Henry’s emotions and private self.
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