What hath Shakespeare to do with the politics of regime change? Given the long and unsuccessful history of what we call regime change, from the installment of the Shah over Persia, to the Bay of Pigs, to Libya, one questions the sanity of anyone who routinely calls for “regime change.” Yet long before our modern failures exposed the foibles of those who lust for power and and the foolishness of political usurpation, the great bard of Anglodom provided wisdom enough for those who consider venturing into foreign lands.
Henry V and the Politics of Usurpation
What we call regime change the medieval and early moderns called usurpation. Like our forebears, we still hold to notions of political legitimacy. While we may find such political legitimacy rooted in the rule of law and how leaders treat their citizens instead of lineages and lines of succession, the principle remains the same: There are those whom we deem illegitimate, and those we deem legitimate.
Shakespeare cannot be separated from the context and times in which he lived. In 1588, Spain, with the blessing of Papal sanction, attempted to conquer England through claims of inheritance and marriage tying the Habsburg dynasty to the crown and throne of Albion. The Spanish Armada was defeated and a world historical shift occurred: the New World was no longer going to be the sole domain of the Spanish Habsburgs, but was now open to the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Celtic peoples who would bring Protestantism, Common Law, and the militia tradition of the right to bear arms to the Americas.
Henry V was written about a decade after the tumultuous events that preoccupied early modern English civilization. The play may have been about one of England’s most beloved kings, but a very close inspection of the play reveals that it is not simply a memoriam to Henry V, but a drama concerning the politics of usurpation and war, the throes of which England had just been under. Elizabethan anxieties and fears over legitimacy, succession, and religious sanction for conquest are all present. The chorus might ask us to imagine the field of Agincourt, since they were incapable of reproducing such a spectacle on stage: “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!”, but the movement of Henry V was certainly drawn from very recent memories and experiences, not distant ones.
It is interesting to note, as other Shakespeare scholars of the past have, that there is much irony interwoven into a play about one of England’s most celebrated monarchs. “Then should warlike Harry, like himself, / assume the port of Mars; and at his heels, / leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire / crouch for employment.” In the choral introduction to Henry V the chorus sings that Henry will bring not peace, prosperity, and fertility’s blessings, but “famine, sword, and fire.” If the measure of a good ruler is presiding over hearth and home with a hearty fire and good stew, then Henry is no such king.
The play opens with the bishops of Canterbury and Ely fretting over a possible church tax. This reflects the angst and anxiety of the clergy in the turmoil of the Reformation. Fearing the loss of their established customs, the churchmen assume the role of conjuring up a justification for a war against France—which has long been on the mind of Henry.
When Henry gathers with the bishops and they exchange the necessary pleasantries, Henry asks the Archbishop of Canterbury to explain why he has claims to the throne of France: “Sure we thank you. / My learned lord, we pray you to proceed, / and justly and religiously unfold / why the Law Salique that they have in France / should or should not bar us in our claim.” The Archbishop then gives a long and tedious, and banal, speech about the technicalities of Salic Law in what is one of the most boring and snooze-worthy speeches in the great plays of Shakespeare. And that’s the point. The Archbishop conjures up the most technical, bordering on absurd, pretexts for war. But perhaps the most important is when he tells Henry that Salic Law forbids a woman from ever inheriting the throne, “No woman shall succeed in Salique land.”
The speech by the Archbishop reveals the ambiguity and the blending of recent English history with that of medieval memory. The Archbishop is analogous to the Bishop of Rome, conjuring up the justification for war and regime change. “No woman shall succeed in Salique land” evokes the complexities and interweaving of woman, Salic exceptionalism, and religious blessing that was the Spanish Armada and the Habsburg attempt to overthrow a certain Queen of England. Accepting the Archbishop’s justification, Henry prepares to “awake [the] sleeping sword of war” that will disturb the tranquility of the vineyards and gardens of the world.
Between the Sword and Love
After mustering a small invasion force, Henry proceeds to venture deep into Frankish lands to establish his claim to the throne. There is only one image of fruitfulness in the play, at the very beginning when the Bishop of Ely speaks to the Archbishop of Canterbury that “[t]he strawberry grows underneath the nettle, and wholesome berries thrive and ripen best.” This tranquil image of serenity will soon be replaced by blood and mud. We must remember that “famine, sword, and fire” is what Henry unleashes.
It is true that Henry V includes some of the most sublime of Shakespearean rhetoric. “Once more unto the breech dear friends” and “Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George” are among the most recognizable lines of all Shakespeare. But we shouldn’t let the beautiful and moving rhetoric Shakespeare inserts into Henry’s persona distract us from the irony that also lies in the same speeches. In the same “Once more” speech that opens the third act of the play, Henry says, revealingly, “Let us swear / that you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not.” The value of man, here, is not in husbandry, but in war—only in war, in bludgeoning a fellow man to death, is a man’s worth found.
The St. Crispin’s Day speech continues to unveil this hypermasculine fraud. As Henry raises the spirit of the beleaguered and hungry English troops, he extols the reality that they are few in number and, therefore, that a victory would mean more glory to the “happy few.” While the other men who remained home in England with wife and children will be forgotten, those who ventured with Henry into France for battle will be remembered for all eternity. The mark of his pride and immortality, won on “this St. Crispin’s Day,” will be the “scars” he shows to the younger generation and his age-old peers who sat out the battle. This is, of course, the great masculine fraud unveiled by Homer as much as it is the fraud unveiled by Shakespeare. War, with its glory and honor to be won, is not the highest reality of life—love, as Shakespeare will show, is the true blessedness we seek.
When the French ambassador arrived earlier in the play to taunt Henry with tennis balls, during which Henry assured him that he would not kill the messenger, as it were, we are told that Henry is a pious and good Christian king: “We are no tyrant, but a Christian king, / unto whose grace our passion is as subject / as is our wretches fett’red in our prisons.” Here we again find more irony and the intrusion of the Anglo-Spanish War into the play. Henry declares himself a Christian king, in comparison to what? A non-Christian king? Of course, that is the argument that Philip II made against Elizabeth. Henry’s declaration of being a just and graceful king, implying compassion, is subsequently juxtaposed with “wretches fett’red in our prisons.” An image of tyranny is placed side-by-side with the claim of not being a tyrant.
War unleashes the barbarism of Henry—as it does of man more generally—and this is fully manifested as Henry conquers town after town. “How yet resolves the Governor of the town?” he asks a besieged French garrison. “This is the latest parle we will admit: / Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves, / or like men proud of destruction, / defy us to our worst; for as I am a soldier, / a name that in my thoughts become me best, / if I begin the batt’ry once again, / I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur / till in her ashes she lie buried. / The gates of mercy shall be all shut up, / and the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart, / in liberty of bloody hand shall range / with conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass / your fresh fair virgins and your flow’ring infants.” In this remarkable speech by Henry to the French townsmen we see the nakedness of his warring pathos. Henry is willing to slay virgin, woman, and child if the town does not capitulate. Likewise, we see once more the masculine fraud—men can only be men in death and war: “Or, like men proud of destruction, / defy us to our worst.” So much for the merciful and graceful Christian king he claimed to be earlier.
Yet we see the other side of Harry, the human side, when he is with Katherine. War, Shakespeare is telling us—especially in the name of political conquest (“regime change”)—barbarizes us. Love, or at the least the hope of love, humanizes us.
After winning the improbable victory at Agincourt, much like the English winning against the much larger Spanish fleet in the English Chanel just a decade before the premier of Henry V on stage, we see a different Henry as he courts his bride. The war acts, the third and fourth, give closer inspection to the person of Henry than the first and second acts. His psychology is revealed as we learn his anxieties over his tenuous and fragile rule inherited by his father and from his stark brutalism in threatening to wipe out entire villages and their non-combatant populations. In the final act with Princess Kate, however, Henry is metamorphosized into a more tender, compassionate, and wholesome individual. No longer beset by the lust to seize the French crown, and instead intent on winning the heart and affection of Kate, Henry lets go of his imperial ambitions to rise into the flower of the white rose instead.
The meeting of Henry and Kate face-to-face as subject creatures of affectivity brings the peace the chorus was hoping for in the prologue to Act 3. The bravado of Henry is humbled by Kate; he is brought low by falling in love her, as she reminds us when she speaks to him in French with ironic closure: “Laissez, mon seigneur, laissez, laissez! Ma foi, je ne veux / point que vous abaissiez votre grandeur en baisant la main d’une de / votre seigneurie indigne serviteur.”
The Henry of the sword, whom we see nakedly revealed in Acts 3 and 4, is transfigured by his encounter with love in Act 5. “O fair Katherine, if you will love me soundly with / your French heart, I will be glad to hear you confess it / brokenly with your English tongue. . . . An angel is like you Kate, and you are like an / angel.” While Kate is confused and blushing (manifesting signs of life), Henry doesn’t mince words about his affection for her. Henry offers no great speech. No “Unto the breach,” “Cry God for Harry,” or “Band of brothers” can be conjured out of the lovestruck heart and tongue of the king. “I know no way to mince it in love, but / directly to say, ‘I love you,’ ” he exclaims to Kate.
There are, then, two Henrys in the play. There is the Henry of the sword, and the Henry of love. The more endearing, indeed, transfigured ruler is the Henry of love. Given that we have just seen the bloody mess of Agincourt, the ending of Henry V is hopeful in its closure in marriage. The prospects of prosperity, as Henry himself confides, are tied entirely to the blissful and blessed marriage between he and Kate, “Prepare we for our marriage; on which day, / my Lord of Burgundy, we’ll take your oath, / and all the peers’, for surety of our leagues. / Then shall I swear to Kate, and you to me, / and may our oaths well kept and prosp’rous be!” As the chorus closes the play we are reminded that Henry lost France and caused England to bleed, but that he also found salvation in Kate.
Regime Change and the Evil of Civil War: Richard III
The other great drama of Shakespeare that deals with regime change is Richard III. One of the earlier historical plays, Richard III is nonetheless a masterpiece of the Shakespearean canon. If Henry V reveals the outcome of the attempt of regime change, wherein trust was frayed, hangings commenced, and men died on fields afar, depriving their wives and children of husbands and fathers back home, then Richard III reveals the disastrous effects of regime change in the country itself—the evil of civil war.
What makes Richard III such a shocking play is how it showcases the extent to which a person will go to usurp power. Richard III wishes to “prove [himself] a villain” and so has his brother murdered to seal his face as one of the immortal villains of English literature. Like the good black operation it has to be, Richard hires expendable third party executioners instead of getting his own hands dirty. He must appear clean, like modern presidents and secretaries of state.
Furthermore, Richard has totally and entirely forsaken love. His courting and marrying of Lady Anne exposes the hollowness of his affection, as the marriage is for purely political ends. Richard, nonetheless, feigns repentance and forgiveness like any good two-faced politico. But his marriage with Lady Anne is purely for show. It only serves a political purpose.
Murder ascends Richard to the throne, and murder is how Richard attempts to maintain his power. Like Cain, Richard is a fugitive of the law he is meant to uphold for others but bends and distorts for his own purposes. Richard’s descent into paranoid madness ends with more murder. Buckingham, an erstwhile champion of Richard, sees himself on the way out, like Soviet lieutenants during the Great Purge. No amount of loyal service can protect one from the vain insanity of a man who sold everything to usurp power.
Richard’s regime change ends in civil war. During the Battle of Bosworth Field, when Richard cries that infamous line, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”, we realize just how fragile political power is. For all the power and state infrastructure Richard had at his disposal, from his ascent to his fall, a simple horse was all he cried out for when it was all vanishing away in blood and fire.
Richard III is also the scourge over England for having deposed Richard II in another regime change prior to his murdering his way to power. A long train of abuses and tragedy befalls England for having committed the first act of regime change prior to Richard’s life, which leads to the culmination of his brutal politics in the backstabbing, murder, and civil war dramatized in the play. What was born in blood must end in blood.
Lastly, we see just how isolated and lonely Richard becomes over the course of the play. True, he was always isolated in a certain manner to begin with, but he was a only scheming man with grandiose intentions at the beginning of the play, and spoke to the audience as if having a conversation. Moreover, the veil was not yet cut, so he still had the favor of his mother and friends. They are by his side even as Richard descends into madness. However, as the play develops and Richard seizes power and falls into madness, all his former confidants and supporters desert him or die (sometimes even killed by Richard.) The endearing but cunning asides inserted into the play also begin to fade out. Richard is now an empty shell of a man, alone, deprived of family and friends and even the audience.
Civil War, first and foremost, is associated with political usurpation in the play. Richard’s usurpation culminates not in dark dungeons and chained cell rooms, but in a war that rips England apart. Neighbor fights neighbor. Brother fights brother. The sacred bonds of family and land evaporate as the sword of war rears its ugly head.
Richard’s death is met by that recurring image of Shakespeare: love in marriage. Richmond’s marriage to Lady Elizabeth signifies the rebirth of war-torn England. How fitting it is that the rebirth of a shattered nation is in holy matrimony, with the prospects of a fertile womb giving birth to new life.
The Horror of War and Reconciliation Through Love
What Shakespeare so brilliantly reveals in Henry V and Richard III is the horror of war wrought by political usurpation—or, as we call it today, regime change. Shakespeare lived through the turmoil of attempted regime change and civil war. Shakespeare’s adolescence and youthful maturation was during the final days and aftermath of the saga of Mary Queen of Scots. The prime of his life intertwined with the Habsburg attempt to overthrow Elizabeth I and claim England for the Habsburg Empire (not to mention the Elizabethan police state critiqued in Hamlet, which revealed how black politics and paranoia also chase away love). We see in a close inspection of Shakespearean themes and ironies the very concerns of the Elizabethan age brought to life on stage and in the movement of the dramas. Indeed, the drama of the Elizabethan age dominates Shakespeare’s “historical” dramas. Civil war, political usurpation, and political legitimacy are not distant memories of the medieval past, as the choral introductions seem to suggest, but very recent memories and ongoing concerns during Shakespeare’s own lifetime.
The drama of war that was so near to Shakespeare and the farce of bloody manhood and political scheming come to the fore in his English historical plays. War brings distrust, deceit, murder, hangings, scars, and famine. The sword of war unleashed in the lust for power, manifesting itself in political usurpation, makes villains of us all and awakens the hounds of “famine, sword, and fire” to sweep over the fair and plentiful world we inhabit.
The wisdom of Shakespeare is in his exposing the naked horror of war wrought by regime change, and how it is countered not by more political calculation but by the encounter and flourishing of love. Like all great poets, whose theme is love, and unlike the political theorists, whose theme is power, Shakespeare reminds us of what truly matters in life. The Henry of the sword is not much better than Richard III upon a very close inspection of the barbarous Henry in Acts 1 and 2 of his eponymous play. But the Henry of love is still open for those sorry souls who have dwelled in blood and mud, but they will have to “los[e] France” if they are to gain angels. Shakespeare heals the world destroyed by politics, not with a political solution, but a far more human and interior solution: love.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on February 5, 2020.