Shakespearing #20 by David Foley
Maybe Obama is Henry V. Both sowed wild oats (a little blow, a little sack). Both spent their youth working with the common folk (community organizing, highway robbery). And as a result both bring to the problem of ruling a nuanced understanding of the world’s complexity and a gut apprehension of the lives of the powerless.
This thought occurred to me early in Henry V. Henry warns the Archbishop of Canterbury to “take heed…how you awake our sleeping sword of war” since war will provoke “much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops/Are every one a woe.” No martial adventurer (no Tamburlaine), Henry knows that the cost of war is paid in the blood of real soldiers. The Archbishop offers 63 lines of almost comically convoluted justification, and we’re off!
This sense that even good men get tangled in the logic of power—find themselves, say, ordering drone strikes or mass surveillance or invasions of France—explains our (or maybe my) complicated response to both men. We want to admire them, but we need to loosen them from their setting of power to do so.
There are times when this is hard with Henry, most famously when he orders the slaughter of the French prisoners in Act IV, Scene vi, but also when he threatens the town of Harfleur with rape and murder if they don’t surrender. “What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause?” he says, sounding like a Republican threatening to shut down the government.
But this, we’re given to understand, is not the real Henry. A few scenes later he’s ordering his troops not to pillage or steal as they make their way through the French countryside. “[T]he gentler gamester is the soonest winner,” he says. Perhaps his threats to the governor of Harfleur were a kind of game, understood as such by both sides, Henry’s threats allowing the governor to yield.
Henry likes games. He plays a kind of game with the traitors in Act II, scene ii, tricking them into pronouncing sentence on themselves. And of course, he plays an elaborate game with Williams, the man who, mistaking him for a fellow soldier, challenges him to a fight. Both games take as their central joke the artificial difference between king and commoner. The traitors pronounce their sentence against a man who drunkenly “rail’d against” the king, a man Henry is inclined to forgive. These games play with the idea of power, but they wouldn’t work if the power weren’t real, if it couldn’t both reprieve the city and slaughter the prisoners.
Perhaps only an ironist could survive this contradiction between the artificial and the deadly earnest. Henry and Obama share a worldview that’s both deeply humane and deeply ironic. (You could argue that this second aspect of the president’s character, which he struggles to conceal, drives his critics crazier than his race.)
Shakespeare, too, is a humane ironist. The most extraordinary parts of Henry V are the prologues to each act. Here Shakespeare transports us by force of language. We see the horses “[p]rinting their proud hoofs in the receiving earth” and “[u]pon the hempen tackle ship-boys climbing.” But he also keeps reminding us that we’re seeing a play (“Southampton…is the playhouse now, there you must sit”) and leaves us with an image of himself as the “bending author…in little room confining mighty men,” where the room seems to be both the space of the stage and the room the writer writes in. It’s a strange kind of sanity, this split vision: to know that we’re in earnest and to know it’s all invention.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.