Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention, A kingdom for a stage, princes to act And monarchs to behold the swelling scene! That’s how Shakespeare begins his play that traces the further adventures of Prince Hal and also of Falstaff and his motley crew. What makes this play different from the rest of Shakespeare’s plays is the use of a Chorus. Unlike the ancient Greek tragedies Shakespeare doesn’t normally use a chorus. But in this case a chorus helps bridge the gaps between France and England; gives an opportunity to explain history to the audience; and accounts for the passage of time that might otherwise be impossible to put on stage. It also helps point out the vast difference between a live theatrical performance and a modern movie. Shakespeare has the chorus speak the lines: Think when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth; For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times, Turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour-glass: for the which supply, Admit me Chorus to this history… In other words, you have to use your imagination. Imagine these are horses. Imagine these are decked-out kings. Imagine everyone growing older with the passage of time. In movies we’re not asked to use our imaginations. When we sit in a movie theater we expect to see something: show me real horses. Show me the decked-out kings. Show me people who have grown older as the film progresses. Use make up. Use special effects. Do whatever you have to do, but don’t ask me to use my imagination. Shakespeare teaches us how to imagine history.

Henry V requires a lot of imagination from the audience. It also leaves a lot of difficult questions for readers of the Great Books. Henry V lives in a world of action, not contemplation. Actors must act but the audience is left free to contemplate the action. In another play, Julius Caesar was lenient with conspirators and got assassinated, which threw Rome into a bloody civil war. Here Henry V is harsh with conspirators and lives to become a hero. As a result England was at peace for many years. What’s the lesson? Be tough? Take pre-emptive action before your enemy gets any stronger? Summarily execute those accused of treason? Our reading in the book of Job says: There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil…this man was the greatest of all the men of the east. Job tried his best to be good and lost everything he had. Henry spends his youth drinking and carousing with losers like Falstaff and Bardolph, who both fritter away their lives and die miserable deaths. But young Prince Hal goes on to become King Henry V and winds up a hero instead. Why? What’s the lesson here? One of the characters in Moliere’s play The Misanthrope says we should accept people as they are, or else leave them alone. This sounds good to modern ears. But what’s the lesson? Would this advice apply to characters like Falstaff and Bardolph, who are drunkards and thieves? Accept them as they are? How about young Henry (Prince Hal) when he’s out drinking and carousing with them? When should we intervene and when should we just let people be? Gibbon describes the tenacity with which the early Christian martyrs clung to their religion. This baffled the Romans. But these martyrs were heroes to later generations of Christians. The French noblemen clung tenaciously to their king and died by the thousands. But they weren’t considered heroes; they squandered their military superiority and lost the battle of Agincourt. What’s the lesson? Finally, what’s the lesson when your back’s to the wall and you face overwhelming odds? King Henry gives a famous speech to his outnumbered men that goes something like this: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother… Is war glorious or is it terrible? Shakespeare’s overall lesson seems to be this: it’s better to be lucky, like Henry V.


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