Monday, October 18, 2010

Isaac I vs. Henry V

Good morning, class! 
So Isaac Butler has made another idiotic pronouncement. What else is new?  We already know the blog host and trust-funded bon vivant (having a bad hair day, above) feels that Shakespeare's overrated - so what's the big deal if he has decided that Henry V is proof positive of the Bard's mediocrity?

Well, it's not that big a deal, actually - and yes, yes, I promised to never read his silly blog!  But the post was staring me in the face on Art's blogroll, and besides, as Isaac himself might say (as he gamely suggests in a backpedaling later post), his position is interesting to study.  It's "a fruitful thing to discuss."

And why?  Because Butler's not just an Internet busybody these days - he's also actually teaching Shakespeare, to college students, at the University of Minnesota.

I know, I know - this is a bit like Lamarck explaining evolution, or Pope Urban offering a seminar on Galileo! (I could go on and on.)

But is Butler's current post (and position) just a bizarrely ironic quirk of fate - or a kind of cultural harbinger?  I'm hoping for the former, of course, but I fear the latter.  Because Isaac's such an exquisitely-detailed millennial type; it's like he was designed by computers and sent back from the future to warn us or something.

Hold on, though - back to his points against Henry V; they're so cliched they're somehow delicious. According to Isaac, Henry V sucks because:

1) There's no suspense - we know how it's going to turn out.  It's actually history!

2) The characterizations are bad.  So what if we're still talking about them 400 years after the fact?  They're still  uninteresting, you know what I mean? Like in that way David Byrne talked about.

3)  It's not that funny, and sometimes the jokes are mean.

4) What's with the plot?  Yeah, even though it's history, it should still have a plot, just like it should still have suspense!  Duh.  That's obvious.

5)  The Battle of Agincourt is not sufficiently awesome.  There's really nothing more to say.

6) The French aren't badass villains, either.  Seriously, they're not.  Just try hissing them, you'll feel silly.

And yes, that's the professor's lecture on Henry V!  I hope the sophomores are feeling edified by now, because I'm not.

Even though I have to admit - everything Professor Butler says is true. I mean, as I read his post, I could only think to myself, "Oh, my GOD!  I do feel silly hissing the Dauphin!"

Ha ha, just kidding.  Professor Butler has only proven that Henry V is a very bad comic book. Indeed, Shakespeare totally ignores the rules of genre!  What was he thinking???

Gosh, who knows?  But what's funny about all this is that the Professor's comments are basically what you'd expect the smart-alecky student in the back row to point out: this play was weird; Henry's a mystery; am I supposed to cheer the hero or not?; and am I supposed to hiss the villains - or not?; I don't get it.  It's not like Star Wars at all!

And then the professor starts talking.  And begins to explain, perhaps, that Henry V is an extended meditation on the meaning of our celebration of "history;" that Henry's "character" seems to be missing because it vanished into his public role slowly, over the course of two previous plays, and that therefore his persona is intentionally mysterious; that the actual Battle of Agincourt for Shakespeare is all but immaterial; and that there is almost no other play extant that can be interpreted in such contradictory, utterly opposed ways - which makes it a "mirror" rather than a "window" (much less a "screen").  It is, in short, a cultural artifact utterly unlike anything in pop culture; indeed, it contains pop culture - what's more, it's a covert critique of exactly what you think it should be.

Only the professor is Isaac Butler!  So none of that is said.  Instead, the student is encouraged to validate his own naive impressions as intellectual insight through "fruitful discussion."  And the academic community takes another small step in its long journey toward intellectual senescence.


  1. Tom! You made me read Parabasis for the first time in over a month, maybe two!

    Isaac really misunderstands Henry V, doesn't he? Has he ever seen a Shakespeare play?

  2. Hey Ian - It has actually occurred to me that Isaac's latest posts were a lame bid to build traffic! Because I generally don't read Parabasis anymore either. I'm serious that Butler interests me as a type, however. He's so articulate - so "collegiate" - yet so culturally clueless. I mean HOW can you read "Henry V" and miss that fact that all its oddities and incongruities must be adding up to some much larger vision? Seriously - to all wannabe critics: if one of the greatest artists who ever lived seems to be disobeying all the accepted rules, do NOT jump to the conclusion that he doesn't know what he's doing! This will only make you look stupid in the long run.

  3. I think this was something we both noted when we wrote up our accounts of the Federalist Society's presentation this summer: Henry is the closest thing the play has to a villain. The French aren't so convincing as villains because they were never intended as such.

    (Yes, I responded to Isaac on his blog.)

    Henry needs to remain a cypher because the theme of the play is patriotism: how much can you surrender your individual or particular (English, Irish, Scots, Welsh) identity to the larger national body politic? If Henry were portrayed as utterly noble then Pistol and company would be utterly unsympathetic. If Henry were a villain, then so would Fluellen and company.

    One the war is over, Harry is happy to leave affairs of state to the apparatchiks; the only chick he's interested in is French.

  4. The play's coda always fascinates me because I find it usually works as romantic comedy in performance, WHATEVER has come before. Which is strange, and somehow troubling; it's rather like the last act of "Merchant of Venice" that way. After doing a lot of stuff that is morally questionable at the very least, the "old" Prince Hal seems to emerge from his military persona, unscathed, and ready for love. But you know, Shakespeare had an almost frightening awareness of the limits of art; more than once in the canon, he simply seems to stop an aesthetic strategy dead in its tracks, with an implicit, "Well, that's as far as I can go with that." And if it's far as Shakespeare can go, it's pretty much as far as anybody can go.

  5. I suspect that Act V of Merchant of Venice did work for Shakespeare's contemporaries, simply because the first four acts would have played to them as a romantic comedy with some tragic qualities to Antonio and Shylock-- while to us, it plays as a tragedy with a romantic comedy subplot and an incongruous ending. It's our sensibilities that changed in this case-- it was my argument in the discussion we had on my blog that the comedic reading was the more anti-Semitic of these two interpretations, since the forced conversion becomes a happy ending.

    The wooing of Kate at the end of Henry V can work and not appear incongruous and I've seen it work when ASP did it-- it worked because their production was intimately staged (of course we lost something of the epic scale propaganda for monarchism in all that intimacy.)

    On the other hand, I do suspect it would be somewhat jarring were we to see a Much Ado About Nothing in which Act I showed us Pedro, Claudio, and Benedick victoriously hacking apart their enemies on the battlefield before showing up looking for love in Messina!

  6. Oh, yeah, sure the last act of Merchant worked for Shakespeare's contemporaries. And actually, as I've argued before, it STILL works thematically (and intellectually); it's just that these days, the problem of the play's anti-Semitic milieu looms for us politically in a way that overshadows the tricky questions of love, obligation, and money that Shakespeare teases out at the finish.

    The problem with the last act of Henry V is slightly different, I think, in that it seems to imply that what has come before is unresolvable in terms of "personality." Indeed, it seems to indicate that at some level Henry hasn't engaged personally at all with his political actions. This is a complete non-sequitur to what has come before - when actually, the finale of Merchant is NOT a non-sequitur, it just feels inadequate to the historical issues that have overtaken the play.

    This works best in films like Branagh's and productions like ASP's, in which the anti-militaristic aspects of the scripts are given scope, or even particular emphasis. Somehow we can connect that pacifism with a romantic pay-off. But as I pointed out in my review of ASP, Henry is also a warrior-king trailing innocent blood behind him. Shakespeare offers no explanation for how we are to ignore that; he just notes, in his utterly worldly way, that Henry does.

  7. That's the thing: In reality, soldiers, be they of the honorable sort, or be they war criminals, whether they fought for a cause noble or cause ignoble, can still fall in love, or have someone fall in love with them. Even villains can be loved.

    Can genre handle that? Can an audience that needs everything to fit neatly into a genre handle that?

    And isn't that the problem for Isaac (and also for our friends at the Federalist Society), that the romantic hero of Act V, also happens to be the same guy who threatened to turn Harfluer into a slaughter house and a rape-camp? And, oh no, that makes it hard to see the French as villains?

  8. Oh, exactly - Shakespeare doesn't answer the great questions, he simply frames them. It's up to US to answer them - as best we can, and even though Shakespeare also allows us to see that many of them are, in fact, un-answerable. There IS no explanation for Iago's evil; no easy reason why King Lear is worth loving; no way to avoid the irony that Hamlet's attempt at revenge make him guilty of precisely the crime he is a victim of. Unlike genre, Shakespeare leaves us with terrible awarenesses rather than badass villains and exciting climaxes. And that's why he is an incomparable artist.