As we are now well into the centenary of the First World War and with major events of the Second coming up for 75th anniversaries (like the Battle of Britain commemorations of last month) the events of 25th October six centuries ago at a village in northern France may not be, perhaps, the most relevant of subjects for the public attention. And quite possibly Agincourt, like Crecy or Potiers, would be known as a battle in the Hundred Years War (which was, of course, nowhere near so clearly defined in the minds of those living through it and lasted for more than a hundred years in any case) rather than enjoy the fame it now has thanks to Shakespeare’s play ‘Henry V’. Watching this play again this week, thanks to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s excellent scheme for broadcasting its performances to cinemas, I was struck again by the capacity of this event, reworked in the Elizabethan playhouse, to define a national identity six centuries later.
The current RSC production is, arguably, just the kind of staging that the play needs at this moment: evolving nicely out of last year’s ‘Henry IV (1 & 2)’ as Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal grows into the role of monarch and defines himself in the most intense of situations – war not against his English enemies but his French rivals. In Gregory Doran’s staging the French are as over-confident as they need to be to earn the righteous indignation of the English in the play (and the audience in the theatre) while Henry balances the assertiveness that could take a country to war with the sense of responsibility that guides the decision making in the campaign.
I’ve seen this play several times, from the Mark Rylance-led production that opened the Globe Theatre in 1997 to Jude Law’s recent interpretation, and I marvel every time at Shakespeare’s capacity to inject the standard ‘England v France’ scenario with the extra material that elevates the play above the celebration of national victory and makes it a deeper character study not only of the king but of the nation as a whole. The representation of Welsh, Irish, and Scots in Henry’s army – although largely used for comic effect – nevertheless reminds us of the play’s role in forming and reinforcing the identity of an embryonic ‘Britain’ in a time when its cohesion was jeopardised with rebellion in Ireland and anxiety over the future when the childless Elizabeth would no longer be in charge. A victory like Agincourt can lift national spirits and, perhaps, gloss over concerns of the present.
The RSC costumes are largely ‘late-medieval’ in my view, but with anomalies to suggest more recent conflicts. Exeter wears a military tunic more World War One that 15th century, and when the disguised Henry talks with his troops in the night before the battle they are more like the foot-soldiers of 1915 than their forbears of his time: reminders, perhaps, that other wars were not as clear-cut as Henry’s, and that William’s remark to the incognito king that “there are few die well who die in battle” is as true now as it was then.
Shakespeare uses Henry’s story to explore not only the development of a prince into a king but also the narratives by which nations are formed, held together, and made to see in their past many of the concerns of their present. Six hundred years on, he makes Agincourt matter not so much because the English won, but because in winning they wrote the first lines of a narrative that he was able to rework into his play so that they would always have something more to remember it by than the brief possession of a few fields in France. When Henry tells his assembled ‘band of brothers’ that the story they are about to write in their actions is one that “the good man shall teach his son” he isn’t being proud, just tying his deeds into a narrative that Shakespeare was going to ensure we’d all remember. The RSC has, with impeccable timing, matched its work to the multiple anniversaries of 2015/16 and given us something new to think about in doing so.