Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
At Vote Leave HQ on the night of the Brexit vote, Daniel Hannan jumped on a table at 4.30am to quote Shakespeare. There was no surprise as to the passage he had chosen: Henri V’s Saint-Crépin’s speech delivered the day before Agincourt. “Gentlemen in England now in bed / Will think themselves cursed if they weren’t here,” roared Hannan, swapping the names of King Hal’s “happy few” – “Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot” – and replacing them by those of Brexit campaigners.
When a certain type of male English “patriot” puffs out his chest, it’s invariably “crying God for Harry, England and Saint George!” he has in mind. You imagine, in this regard, that Hannan and his “band of brothers” may want to avoid the Globe theater later this week – on the eve of Remembrance Day – when a new production of Shakespeare’s martial play, directed by Holly Race Roughan, will open.
Roughan was quoted in an interview with the Arrange last week, offering a somewhat shallower endorsement of the drama’s message: “When I read Henry Vshe said, “I thought, ‘Holy shit, this is the pinnacle of English mythology and white supremacy, and toxic masculinity.’ I felt like I had discovered the dirty, murky roots of English nationalism. I wanted to take the dirt piece out and look at those roots and start asking questions about them. What is Anglicism? What is it for socially and politically?
This quote has sparked many virtual bead hooks from the “isn’t there anything sacred?” crew on Twitter; a Telegraph the editorial had a dig at “Woke King Harry”. But Roughan’s questions about the play were not new. Henry V has always been a barometer of English patriotism – providing space for flag fervor and the examination of ‘dirty and murky mythology’ in equal measure. As Shakespeare knew better than any Englishman who ever lived, nothing divides us like the history we choose to remember.
Watching a production during the Boer War, George Bernard Shaw criticized Shakespeare for “pushing such a jingo hero as his Harry V down his throat”
Henry V is all about these ambiguities – the ways in which national sentiment can be roused to cynical and gory ends; Saint Crispin’s speech was both the promise of Jerusalem and lies on the side of a bus. The production of the Globe announces itself in these terms: “Civil unrest, unrest with Europe, death of a monarch… Discover the troubling news of Shakespeare. Henry V in a production that offers a different perspective on the English hero. In fact, in 500 years, the play has never seemed “bewilderingly relevant” and “England’s hero” has always had a lot of light and shadow.
Sometimes the piece was employed as a simple recruiting sergeant. In 1789, when the establishment feared the insurrection would spread across the Channel, John Philip Kemble starred in a showy production to stir up anti-French sentiment. In 1942, Laurence Olivier, dressed in his Fleet Air Arm uniform, gave the Saint Crispin’s Day speech on the BBC to boost morale; Churchill urged him to make his famous film version of it and borrowed some cadences from him – “never in the realm of human conflict” – for his own broadcasts.
Just as often, the play was a vehicle for anti-imperial sentiment. Watching a production during the Boer War, George Bernard Shaw criticized Shakespeare for “pushing a jingo hero like his own”. Harry V down the throat”, but 25 years later, after Passchendaele and Gallipoli, Stratford audiences were treated to a grim production reflecting the idea, as one reviewer remarked, that post-war audiences “don’t did not admire the conquerors” and was likely to be appalled by the “Bismarckian style”. brutalities” of the eponymous king.
More recently, these sentiments have multiplied. Michael Bogdanov’s production in 1986 – at the height of Thatcherite chauvinism – had an English army marching across the stage under the banner “Fuck the Frogs” and chanting the football hooligans refrain “‘ere we go, ‘ere we go , ‘ere we go”. Nicholas Hytner’s 2003 staging at the National Theater coincided with the Iraq War and underscored the dubious legality of Henry’s French invasion. Hytner’s program notes revealed that the United States Department of Defense had made the play compulsory reading for American soldiers preparing for shock and awe. Adrian Lester played the young king as a slick spin doctor; St Crispin’s speech became the ultimate dubious file.
Even the greatest critics have always tended to see what they wanted in the play. For the radical William Hazlitt, it was the portrait of a “lovable monster”, drunk with the “pleasure of destroying thousands of other lives”. For the curator Thomas Carlyle, it was proof positive that Shakespeare was a nationalist: “A true English heart breathes, calm and strong, through the whole affair…”
“What is English? asks Holly Race Roughan. At best, I would say, it is the ability to hold all of this complex history in mind and, during Remembrance Week, to see it for what it is: both the finest hours and the lions led by donkeys; both the sacrifice of unknown soldiers and toxic masculinity; or as Shakespeare’s play keeps telling us, let’s not forget: both the moving national poetics and the “war-worn coats” of “so many horrible ghosts”.
• Tim Adams is an Observer columnist