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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Would You Choose King Henry V and War, or Falstaff and Peace?

War does not settle things for very long.

In her recent article, Sarah Skwire passingly compares the tweeting President Trump to Falstaff, the boorish comic figure and companion of Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts 1 and 2. Skwire celebrates Hal’s eventual rejection of Falstaff even as she regrets the prospect of four years of Trump’s Falstaff-like antics.

Boorish Falstaff’s skeptical attitude toward war would’ve been better for England than Henry.For my part, although I’m not a fan of Trump’s tweeting – which has grown even more problematic since Skwire’s article appeared – I contend that Hal’s transformation into King Henry V proves far more problematic than his youthful association with Falstaff. Indeed, as we consider the subject of Henry V and wars of aggression, I will suggest that, ironically enough, Falstaff’s skeptical attitude toward war would have proved more healthful for England – and its adversary France – than Henry’s quickly adopted military triumphalism.

Skwire notes how Falstaff, in 1 Henry IV, abuses his government position as a military recruiter for his own financial gain and how he awaits the day Hal will assume the throne, thinking he will gain great political power through his association with the monarch. Falstaff’s reckless lust for power reaches its absurd apex near the end of 2 Henry IV when, upon learning of Hal’s father’s death and anticipating how he will use the power of the state to pillage his fellow Englishmen and escape the rule of law, he exclaims: “I know the young King is sick for me! Let us take any man’s horses – the laws of England are at my commandment. Blessed are they that have been my friends, and woe to my Lord Chief Justice!”

As Skwire approvingly reports, the newly crowned Henry V renounces his erstwhile companion, rebuking his recklessness as he affirms the dignity with which he plans to conduct his office:

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.

Although Henry’s break from Falstaff is praiseworthy in terms of establishing the dignity with which the new king intends to exercise throughout his reign, we should consider the focus of Henry’s kingship in Shakespeare’s ensuing play, Henry V.

Problems with Henry’s War

Henry V focuses on Henry’s military campaign against France, an enterprise many today see as an unjust war of aggression that broke the 26-year peace between England and France. Henry dubiously declares and justifies the war through the dishonest machinations of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who wants the war to protect the interest of Church property. Henry’s personal motivation is to secure popular support for and thus add stability to his reign – a stability his late father Henry IV lacked, whose reign was marred by civil war. Indeed, on his deathbed in 2 Henry IV, Henry IV advises Prince Hal “to busy giddy minds/ With foreign quarrels, that action hence bourne out/ May waste the memory of the former days.”

All Henry V’s progress was lost when his son took the throne.Henry’s war is initially a rousing success for England: France is defeated, English casualties are strikingly low whereas Shakespeare reports the French casualties to be 10,000, and France itself faces unwanted rule by its foreign conquerors. But the final words of Henry V remind the audience that after Henry’s premature death, his successor, his son Henry VI, proves to be an incompetent ruler and loses France.

England was eventually defeated in the final decades of the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337-1453), a war that killed as many as three million people. Furthermore, the bloody War of the Roses (1455-87), a “civil broil” (to use Shakespeare’s phrase) whose death toll is estimated to be nearly 50,000, was born from the Hundred Years War. Henry V’s anticlimactic final lines elicit skepticism about Henry’s military enterprise in light of subsequent developments, especially as we recall Mises’s warnings about the ramifications of war.

Falstaff vs. Henry on Military Honor: Realism vs. Propaganda?

Perhaps the horrifying costs of these wars should inspire us to reevaluate Henry V’s rejection of Falstaff. For although Falstaff is guilty of exploiting the military system, as Skwire points out, he also expresses a profound cynicism for war, questioning the very idea of sacrificing life or health for the sake of military honor. Standing alone on the battlefield in 1 Henry IV, Falstaff says,

[H]onor pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honor set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honor? a word. What is in that word honor? what is that honor? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon [decoration for a shield]: and so ends my catechism.

Falstaff’s realistic perspective on honor over and against the horrors of war may be contrasted with Henry’s famous St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V, in which Henry explicitly puts forth the prize of military honor to rouse his discouraged and outnumbered troops to fight the French. Henry asserts that “The fewer men, the greater share of honor” and proclaims, “if it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending soul alive.” He concludes by telling his troops that in each future St. Crispin’s Day

We in it shall be rememberèd –
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 accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry V in America

Henry’s exhortation is a smashing success in the short term, inspiring his army to defeat France in the decisive Battle of Agincourt. But as I note above, the long-term ramifications of his military expedition prove disastrous. It isn’t hard to see why President George W. Bush has been compared to Shakespeare’s Henry V – first for Bush’s transformation from a youthful playboy to a surprisingly dignified leader, and then for his seemingly high-minded but ultimately problematic wars of aggression with their various unforeseen consequences. Perhaps both Henry and Bush would have profited from considering Falstaff’s sobering analysis of the limitations of military honor.

We should also remember that President Trump campaigned as if he was against the Iraq War from the beginning. But as saber rattling between him and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un continues to escalate, let us hope that he heeds those who advise deterrence instead of war with North Korea. And let us hope that Trump’s Falstaff-like tweeting does not morph into Henry-like military aggression and propaganda regarding the honor of war.

  • David V. Urban is Professor of English at Calvin College. His scholarly writings include his ongoing work on the influence of John Milton upon C. S. Lewis and Lewis' criticism of Milton's Paradise Lost. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.