All Commentary
Friday, September 6, 2013

The Problem with Binary Thinking

About a year ago, I wrote a piece in praise of the “explicit, uncensored, behind-the-scenes rent-seeking action” that is the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Henry V. As I write this column, the war drums are beating and the sabers are rattling in Washington, and it seems like a good time to take another look at Henry V.

I frequently am part of debates over whether this play is pro-war or anti-war. The pro-war side of the argument has some very strong evidence. The plot, after all, details Henry V’s nearly miraculous military triumphs during the English invasion of France. And the play culminates with the battle of Agincourt, where the tiny, ill, and exhausted army of English soldiers defeats the better-supplied, wealthier, and far more numerous French army.

Henry V includes the St. Crispin’s Day speech, which is the kind of speech that—back when I was lecturing on Shakespeare regularly—would prompt me to stand on the furniture and declaim dramatically. You all know it: 

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

It’s impossible to read that speech without getting stirred up. It’s just as impossible not to be inspired by similar lines from an earlier part of the play:

And you, good yeoman,

Whose limbs were made in England, show us here

The mettle of your pasture; let us swear

That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;

For there is none of you so mean and base,

That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.  

Simply reading the lines makes you want to be better and bolder and braver. War, these lines argue, makes men noble. It provides them with an opportunity to be great. 

Henry V can be read as such a paean to military honor and glory that in 1944, Lawrence Olivier made a film version that was intended to bolster the spirits of the English after the Blitz. Partially funded by the government, Olivier’s film was dedicated to the “Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture.”

It's More Complicated Than That

But there is another side to the argument. In order to read the play as unambiguously pro-war, you have to be willing to ignore the public choice implications of the opening scene. In that scene the clergy engage in a little bit of competitive bribery: They hope to hang onto their church lands by funding Henry V’s war with France. While Olivier retains this scene, he did have to leave out a few other moments entirely in order to make his pro-war film: moments like Henry V’s order to slaughter the French prisoners taken on the battlefield. Like his decision to hang an old friend for stealing from a church. Like Henry’s speech before the city walls of Harfleur. 

That speech is less well-known than the St. Crispin’s Day speech. No one gets asked to memorize it for school, and we don’t break into it when we want to whip a bridge partner into a competitive frenzy. So, a little context. Henry is at the walls of the town of Harfleur during a pause in the fighting, addressing the governor of the town to try to persuade him to surrender. 

If I begin the battery once again,

I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur

Till in her ashes she lie buried.

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,

And the flesh'd soldier, rough and hard of heart,

In liberty of bloody hand shall range

With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass

Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.

What is it then to me, if impious war,

Array'd in flames like to the prince of fiends,

Do, with his smirch'd complexion, all fell feats

Enlink'd to waste and desolation?

What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause,

If your pure maidens fall into the hand

Of hot and forcing violation?

 . . . Therefore, you men of Harfleur,

Take pity of your town and of your people,

Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;

 . . . If not, why, in a moment look to see

The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand

Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;

Your fathers taken by the silver beards,

And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls,

Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,

Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused

Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry

At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen.

What say you? will you yield, and this avoid,

Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroy'd?

Just as it’s hard to read the St. Crispin’s Day speech without being stirred into a martial frenzy, it’s hard to read the Harfleur speech without being sickened by the horrors of war. Add to that the Duke of Burgundy’s painful meditations on a conquered France where all husbandry and industry have been destroyed by war, and it becomes very difficult indeed to read the play as whole-heartedly pro-war.

But the problem with trying to classify Henry V as pro-war or anti-war is very much like the problem that is the ordinary preoccupation of this column—the attempt to classify literature as pro-market or anti-market. It is asking the wrong question. It is trying to make literature do something that it does not do well. Literature thrives on subtlety and complexity. Literature is a tool that allows us to explore a whole range of opinions and attitudes toward a problem as well as a wide set of responses and possible outcomes. To expect a work by any reasonably good and intelligent author—let alone a genius like Shakespeare—to be always and in all ways “on message” is to expect literature to be no more than a soundbite. And that is a foolish error. As Tyler Cowen notes, “Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we're too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you're telling a good vs. evil story, you're basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more.” 

Literature is not for clear answers. Literature is for complicated questions. That’s why it’s useful. That’s why it’s important.