Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

perspective: "Henry V" and the War


It was the largest free distribution of fiction and nonfiction books in the history of the world. More than 1,300 titles in all were published, including classic works of literature by such authors as Hemingway, Steinbeck and Melville.

My father read those books in the Army in World War II — someone shipped a crate of classics to New Guinea. He mentioned later that in six months he read most of the greatest novels ever written.

The program was discontinued in 1947, according to its Web site, but now has several publishers distributing free ASEs to American troops throughout the world and on U.S. warships.

It would be hard to fault the World War II project. The current project, however, is drawing criticism, largely because Hemingway, Steinbeck and Melville seem to have been passed over in favor of more militaristic content. Sun Tzu's "The Art of War," Mike Wallace and Allen Mikaelian's "Medal of Honor," and "War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars" (ed. Andrew Carroll) have all made the cut. Mark Twain's "The War Prayer" has not.

But the criticism underestimates Shakespeare, if not the Pentagon. Anyone who assumes "Henry V" is gung-ho jingoism should read its first scene.

The play is about Henry's invading France, to conquer it and take it over for England. (Some scenes trash the French exactly they way they're being trashed today.)

But the invasion is instigated not by Henry but by two eminencies behind the throne, the political archbishop of Canterbury and bishop of Ely. As the play opens, they are worried, not about France, but about a threat closer to home: The House of Commons is considering a bill to confiscate half the church's possessions.

For all the temporal lands which men devout

By testament have given to the church

Would they strip from us.

When the bishop asks repeatedly how they can ward off this threat, the archbishop comes up with his campaign idea: they will urge Henry to conquer France instead, and will give him the money to do it:

Which I have open'd to his grace at large,

As touching France, to give a greater sum

Than ever at one time the clergy yet

Did to his predecessors part withal.

France, they will argue, offers bigger booty than the church.

The severals and unhidden passages

Of his true titles to some certain dukedoms

And generally to the crown and seat of France

Derived from Edward, his great-grandfather

and along with the money, they will also give his invasion the church's blessing. Incidentally, they also treat the invasion as inevitable.

And thus begins a great play, in its own ironic way, with a truly enjoyable, smarmy kickoff. The conquest of France, of course, turns out to be a premier example of be-careful-what-you-wish-for: Henry V dies young, France rebels against the English interlopers (even in the English history plays) and expels them ignominiously within a few years, leaving English politicians quarreling over who lost France for two generations, and a breach between France and England — natural allies and trading partners — for three centuries.

If you can believe the literature.

Everyone and his brother has called Shakespeare "timeless," a tribute almost undeniable. The plays may become less clear on some 25th-century planet Xanax, but for now, obviously, the scene above sounds familiar to the point of allegory: Just substitute "Bush uncles" for churchmen, "oil" for the French throne, any of several needed reforms for confiscation, etc.

The ironies are almost irresistible. Maybe some Pentagon desk seats a Renaissance-literature mole, using a scrivener's job and the master's tools to chisel an English-major "Kilroy was here" on the massive Iraq propaganda pedestal.

Or maybe, as the author wrote in another context, "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will." S

Guest writer Margie Burns teaches English at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She earned a doctorate in Renaissance literature and has taught and written about "Henry V." To submit a piece to the Perspective column, please send it to

Opinions expressed in Perspective are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

Add a comment