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King Henry V.

Andrew Gurr's important edition of Henry V includes, in his `Note on the Text', some theoretical remarks on the nature of Shakespeare's dramas, and the remarks help to explain certain aspects of his edition. Subject to the dynamics of stage production, as he says, Shakespeare's plays have been unstable for some four centuries, and will continue to be so. Since they are involved in constant change and adjustment there can be no moment of perfection for any of the dramas, either on stage or in any text. That being so, a good new editorial attempt acknowledges its position in time, and may have a kind of implicit, built-in obsolescence. Mr Gurr's edition, I think, is very time-conscious. It is excitingly fresh, factual, judicious, and useful in its Introduction, notes, and other apparatus; but on the structure of Henry V it is also argumentative, sceptical, and in some ways hostile, taking in questions about the play's contradictions, confusions, and `patriotic triumphalism' that have become increasingly sharp in recent criticism. The editor is as alert to 1982-92, as he is to the 1590s; he qualifies, counters, or approves, and continues on from Gary Taylor's Oxford edition of Henry V in 1982, while implying that both editions of Shakespeare's play reflect a modern bias and will be properly superseded.

It is not easy to imagine how some features of Gurr's edition will be bettered. He is especially good on Henry V's relation to politics in the 1590s, to military propaganda, the succession problem, French Salic Law which rears its head again, and Shelley's Case of 1579-81. Perhaps his knowledge of the Elizabethan theatre is unrivalled, and he draws on it as when he explains the difference between an amphitheatre theatre flourish and a hall theatre one, or when he leaves the problem of the `wooden O' allusion (to the Curtain or the Globe?) in a state of definitive doubt. He attends specially to `frontal' sources for the play, Holinshed's Chronicles which was followed closely, and early plays which prompted that anonymous, extant The Famous Victories of Henry V. Since early plays about Henry V are known chiefly from a remark by Nashe, and a wretched 1,550-line text of Famous Victories, he can seem too familiar with them, but his arguments do not hinge on speculation.

Henry V shows signs of `discontinuous composition' in Gurr's view, and was not easy to write in the summer of 1599. Its author had been buffeted by trouble with the authorities over Richard II and his `Olcastle' gaff in 1 Henry IV; his company was short of funds. The new play was confused if not incoherent, but it relied on a clear story in Holinshed. Confusions remained. Whether or not Chorus speeches were added later, Henry V's Chorus gets nearly everything wrong. To cite minor examples, it moves the action to the coast instead of to Eastcheap; it sends Henry's army off to France from Southampton and Dover alike, and on the eve of Agincourt talks of a `little touch of Harry in the night', though Harry cheers up neither man nor devil in the night. The King lies to his troops about brotherhood. As `the star of England', he has found it impossible to be honest with anyone, even before starting a doubtfully just war against his neighbours. He is a kind of stolid, `opaque' iceblock, who in the play eschews the famous field-device of archers protected by stakes against the French cavalry. But the Deity or good luck sees him through, and at last he claims Katherine with his `franglais gallantries' in a kind of rape. Out of that man, we make a hero. Almost the whole history of the play as performed amounts to a series of patriotic and emotional readings' rather than analyses of `ambivalence', Gurr holds, for what we read is very different from what we see and hear on stage, or in the films of Olivier (1944) or Branagh (1989), though at least Branagh's Henry watches as Bardolph is hanged. What worries us, now, is whether our cultural materialists are right in thinking ideological ambivalence determined the play, or whether Shakespeare was pained by most ideologies of the 1590s. Gurr includes a rare useful discussion of the availability of books to Shakespeare, and proposes a new play-source in Richard Crompton's Mansion of Magnanimitie which Richard Field printed early in 1599.

Though Gurr has reasons for it, one hopes his change of Fluellen to `Llewellyn' is a piece of built-in obsolescence. The Welsh captain's name is `Fluellen' in the 1623 Folio, `Flewellen' in the 1600 Quarto. A `Fluellen' is listed as a recusant at Stratford with John Shakespeare, as the editor knows, and M. C. Andrews points to Gerard's Herbal (1597) with its remarks on the speedwell, which is `in Welch ... called Fluellen' and contrasts with the leek; see Notes and Queries, ccxxxi (1986), 354-6. Though Gurr is reasonable and provocative, his modernizing of `Fluellen' perhaps leads to an associative loss. More wary of Q readings than Taylor, he follows F rather than Q for Act IV, Scene V, which has five more lines than in Taylor, but he agrees in giving the Dauphin's speeches at Agincourt to the Duke of Bourbon. Happily, Gurr and Taylor both follow Theobald in letting us hear, of Falstaff, that `a babbled of green fields'; and Gurr will not have `Ensign', but `Ancient' Pistol. One may miss three oaths, which I do not find even in this edition's notes, though all are in Q and may be Shakespeare's if the Act of 1606 led to their being deleted from the F text: gads lugges' (God's ears) at II.i.26, `Godes sollud' (God's lids?) at IV.i.74, and `Mas' (By the Mass) at IV.i.175. Perhaps Pistol, even if his profanity is really Kempe's, could be allowed to swear quietly in textual notes? Gurr is helpful with other oaths, and fresh and close in arguing that Q was meant to be a reading text, for the printer, `not the stage'.

Graham Holderness and Brian Loughrey, in their edition of Q, or The Cronicle History of Henry the fift, say little about the text's possible origins or purpose. Their methods are casual; they misspell Edmond Malone's name, drop `Caesar' from Thomas Platter's report in 1599 (`vom ersten Keyser Julio Caesare'), loosely describe a photo-facsimile of the 1600 text as a `modern version', and nearly give up with Katherine's first scene which they say is `difficult to annotate': the reader is left to swim through a mishmash of Tudor franglais and printer's errors, with little help. But their critical enthusiasm is keen, and their argument that this raw, brief, quick-paced Tudor version of Henry V is worthy of criticism in its own right is surely sound. Henry the fift needs to be more devotedly edited, but it is helpful to have an original-spelling edition of the text of 1600 in this inexpensive paperback form.
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Author:Honan, Park
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1994
Words:1158
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