Academic Exchange Quarterly    Winter  2002    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 6, Issue 4

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Henry V, the Gulf War, and Cultural Materialism

Dr. Kevin Ewert, University of Pittsburgh at Bradford


Dr. Ewert is Assistant Professor of Theatre at Pitt-Bradford, and also the General Manager of the Unseam’d Shakespeare Company in Pittsburgh.  Productions he has directed with Unseam’d include Coriolanus (Best Stage Production of 1999, In Pittsburgh), The Libertine (Top 10, Best of Theatre 2000, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) and The Winter’s Tale (Best of Theatre 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).




This paper is about the difficult relationship between visions of the future and known history in Shakespeare’s Henry V; it is also about finding a way to make cultural materialism comprehensible to undergraduates.  Three particular moments of historical/cultural schism are analyzed: between the play and the history it represents, when the final Chorus steps forward and tells us that everything Henry has won will shortly be lost; between the play and its originary moment, where a hopeful vision of the Earl of Essex returning victorious to London from Ireland is dashed only months after the play premiered; and between a modern victor in a modern battle, in a series of articles in Forbes magazine using Shakespeare’s play to “understand” the Gulf War.  These three moments are linked, in order to offer a template for using the relationships of texts to historical moments for teaching a cultural materialist perspective to undergraduate students of Shakespeare.


Henry V, the Gulf War, and Cultural Materialism

This paper is about the difficult relationship between visions of the future and known history in Shakespeare’s Henry V.  It is also about teaching cultural materialism to undergraduates.  Henry V ends with Henry's total victory crowned with a number of visions of future peace and prosperity.  Then the final Chorus steps forward and tells us what history -- and the Elizabethan stage -- already knows: that everything this theatrically resurrected but historically contingent Henry has won will shortly be lost.  But there is another schism between visions and history in the play.  The Chorus at the beginning of the last act contains a vision of the Earl of Essex, "the general of our gracious empress", returning victorious to London from Ireland; for Shakespeare's audience, this vision was soon to suffer the same fate as the famous victories of Henry V, where high expectations end in ignomy and civil unrest.  As I was preparing to teach Henry V for an undergraduate class on Shakespeare, I came across a third vision of victory that came into conflict with a historical outcome.  Forbes magazine published an article just after the Gulf War comparing George Bush's extraordinary military triumph to Shakespeare's dramatization of Henry's victory at Agincourt, complete with visions of a nation united under a strong and wise and successful leader.  A year later, Forbes published another article that effectively served as the final Chorus in Henry V, recognizing that Bush lost the election just as the English eventually lost what they had gained in France.  I would like to link these three visions, in order to offer a template for using the relationships of texts to historical moments for teaching a cultural materialist perspective to undergraduate students of Shakespeare.


In Terence Hawkes’ cultural materialist dictum, “we mean by Shakespeare” (3) – a Shakespeare play doesn’t have one singular inherent true meaning, but rather picks up meanings and often is made to mean particular things at particular historical and cultural moments.  Similarly, current Performance Studies practitioners point out that theatre always has “excessive contextuality” (Jackson 89).  The theatre event is not a hermetically sealed, aesthetically stable and controlled artifact but rather is implicated within, even bursting with its own cultural, historical, social, and political contexts, those “constellations of elements that comprise its habitus and its field” (Savran 93).  Perhaps not surprisingly, in anticipation of both of the points above, Ralph Berry concludes his 1981 production history of Henry V by stating “what happens to [Henry V] in the future will no doubt be determined less by directors than by history” (81).


We see within the play itself that theatre and history have an uneasy relationship.  Theatre can raise the dead, although the Chorus, ever modest, says they are only “flat, unraised spirits” on this “unworthy scaffold” and that it is the audience who must do much of the work to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” (Prologue 9, 10, 23).  Perhaps this is slightly disingenuous: from all indications, Shakespeare’s company was pretty good at what it did.  Still, if theatre raises the dead it also has to kill them off again, as the final Chorus does for Henry.  The end of the play proper is filled with visions for a glorious future; the French King starts the vision as he gives away his daughter:

King Charles                Take her, fair son, and from her blood raise up

                                    Issue to me, that the contending kingdoms

                                    Of France and England, whose very shores look pale

                                    With envy of each other's happiness,

                                    May cease their hatred, and this dear conjunction

                                    Plant neighbourhood and Christian-like accord

                                    In their sweet bosoms, that never war advance

                                    His bleeding sword 'twixt England and fair France.  (5.2.332-40)

The French Queen concurs, and develops the vision further:

Queen Isabel                God, the best maker of all marriages,

                                    Combine your hearts in one, your realms in one!

                                    As man and wife, being two, are one in love,

                                    So be there 'twixt your kingdoms such a spousal,

                                    That never may ill office, or fell jealousy,

                                    Which troubles oft the bed of blessed marriage,

                                    Thrust in between the paction of these kingdoms,

                                    To make divorce of their incorporate league;

                                    That English may as French, French Englishmen,

                                    Receive each other, God speak this “Amen”!  (344-53)

And, fittingly enough, Henry himself has the final word to cap this vision for the future:

King Henry                   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 prosperous be!  (355-9)

But the characters’ future vision is a theatrical soft ball lobbed towards the final Chorus, who knocks it out of the wooden O into the historical future already past and the theatrical sequel already played:

Chorus                         Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned King

                                    Of France and England, did this king succeed;

                                    Whose state so many had the managing,

                                    That they lost France and made his England bleed,

                                    Which oft our stage hath shown ... (Epilogue 9-13)

That final Chorus might be seen as reluctant, ironic, sobering, or as a bit of a sucker punch, but the final result is the same: the vision of a glorious future espoused within the fiction is met and deflated by more history and another play.  The relationship between theatre and history remains, if now for a different reason from that suggested in the opening Chorus, an uneasy one.


Between the play and its originary historical moment, there is another uneasy relationship.  The Act 5 Chorus contains “the only explicit, extradramatic, incontestable reference to a contemporary event anywhere in the [Shakespearean] canon” (Taylor 7):

Chorus                         Were now the general of our gracious empress,

                                    As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,

                                    Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,

                                    How many would the peaceful city quit,

                                    To welcome him!  Much more, and much more cause,

                                    Did they this Harry.  (5.0.30-5)

In order better to make the point about the historical Henry’s post-Agincourt reception in London to the contemporary London audience members he is addressing at the play’s historical moment, the Chorus talks about our gracious empress, Elizabeth, and the General now in Ireland, who is the Earl of Essex, and suggests an equivalence in terms of high expectations, victory, glory, honour, and a grateful and celebrating nation.  This reference rather precisely dates the writing of the play at early in 1599.  Essex left for Ireland on March 27, 1599, by midsummer the success of the expedition was in doubt, and on September 28, 1599, Essex returned to London in shame, defeated (Taylor 5).  Less than two years later in February 1601, after a failed rebellion that most pointedly did not stir the London crowds, the former general was executed by his no longer gracious or grateful empress.  The topical reference and hopeful vision from the moment the play was written tells a very different story shortly thereafter; perhaps not so strangely enough, it is a change in story very similar to that effected by the final Chorus on the historical Henry.  Like the golden boy Henry and all his achievements, Essex too is sucker-punched by history, this time from an epilogue outside the bounds of the play.  The contemporary equivalence itself becomes historically contingent.


Between the play and its life in the early 1990s, there may be seen yet another uneasy relationship. Under the leadership of George Bush -- no initial needed at the time -- US forces fought the Gulf War in February/March 1991.  Shortly after that stunning victory, an article appeared in Forbes Magazine, using Shakespeare’s historical play to better understand the current events.  “Miracle in the desert: to grasp the full miraculous measure of the US victory in the Gulf,” the article tells us, “you have to go back and read Shakespeare’s Henry V” (Novak 62).  The article makes a number of detailed comparisons between the Gulf War and Shakespeare’s play, and points up some startling equivalencies, starting with the same number of casualties on the winning side.  Henry reads the lists after the battle and finds four “of name” and “of all other men but five and twenty” (4.8.103-4); Forbes points out that “US forces leading the Great Coalition threw half a million soldiers against deeply entrenched Iraqis, and in four days emerged triumphant at the cost of but 29 Americans killed in the assault” (Novak 62).  The article ends with the recognition that in both cases providence must have been on the side of the victors: “O God thy arm was here ... and be it death proclaimed throughout our host to boast of this, or take that praise from God which is his only ... God fought for us” says Henry (4.8.104, 112-14, 118); Forbes concurs with “above all, though, this nation owes thanks to God ... God gave us our ‘Saint Crispin’s Day’ and we should thank Him for it” (Novak 63).  In between the math and the moral certainty, a number of further equivalencies are drawn:

Like Bush, Henry V was mocked by his foes as too weak and soft to fight.  Like Bush from Aug. 2 until Mar. 2, Henry V grew in purpose and in stature from the first moments of his expedition until its bloody climax.  Like Bush, Henry V was fond of terms like "kind" and "gentle," but fiercely resolute for vindication of the right.  Like Bush, before the battle Henry V prayed mightily -- knowing well the probability of slaughter, massacre and abject failure (Novak 63).

The article also points to an equivalence in the ability to rise above domestic problems: “Moiling, muddling and malaise on domestic policy have not been unknown to this Administration. But not in this case, not during these seven months” (Novak 63).  A further equivalence might be seen in the two leaders’ powers of persuasion: “George Bush sized up Saddam Hussein almost instantly.  Then slowly, ever so slowly, he persuaded the rest of the world to see reality as he did” (Novak 63).  One of the most interesting equivalencies comes in a verbal echo of the “band of brothers” speech: a vision of the future, where Henry tells his men that

                                                            Then shall our names

                                    Familiar in [the] mouth as household words --

                                    Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,

                                    Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester --

                                    Be in their cups freshly remembered.  (4.3.51-5)

becomes in the Forbes article an equally exuberant list of future heroes: after the President’s “inspired leadership” we have “the reassuring figure of Dick Cheney at Defense; the strategic sense of General Colin Powell; ‘Stormin' Norman’ Schwarzkopf, who executed the final ‘Hail Mary’ offensive thrust, and ... Iowa's General ‘Chuck’ Horner, who masterminded a brilliant air campaign” (Novak 63).  The comparisons between the Gulf War and Henry V all make the case that this is a high point for a grateful nation.


For a two-page magazine article, this is a fairly thorough reading of the play; it is, of course, not exactly complete.  Like the triumphant Henry in the play, and like Essex in Ireland in the reference, Bush-as-Henry/Gulf-as-Agincourt comes to be rewritten, to mean by Shakespeare again but differently, as we shift the cultural and historical context forward once more.


What does this article leave out?  More history in the future that it doesn’t yet know, and that final Chorus in Shakespeare’s play.  The workings of American politics supplies another equivalency between Bush and Henry, and less than two years later, Forbes magazine supplies the missing Shakespearean Chorus.  Just as Henry’s glory and achievements lasted but a “small time” (Epilogue 5), so to with George Bush.  Less than two years later, Bush is out of office, and after the great victory comes a sobering letdown.  “Small time, but in that small most greatly lived/ This star of England” says the final Chorus of its historically contingent hero; “despite his reelection defeat,” Forbes assures us, “former president George Bush has won a special place in history for what he did to prepare for and prosecute the Gulf War” (Forbes Jr.).  Bush lost the reelection and, in 1993, Forbes can recognize the contents of Shakespeare’s final Chorus: “of course, the 15th-century French eventually routed the English” (Forbes Jr.).  Should one wish to compound the irony – or at least explore the possibilities for yet another historically contingent equivalence at the moment I’m writing this paper – ten years later the great leader’s son is contemplating a move against the same, apparently rejuvenated enemy.  We can but hope we don’t find ourselves in a further series of equivalencies with Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays.


Cultural materialism encourages us to look carefully for the places – the faultlines, to use Alan Sinfield’s term – where the aims of an ideology or a power structure may reveal themselves to be incomplete.  In the first Forbes article, the ringing endorsement of the power status quo leaves room to be undone, even in its own chosen literary template.  The text of Henry V remains uncontained by a single or singular reading; the ideology of Bush-and-America triumphant, like the ideology of Henry-and-England or Essex-and-England triumphant, is revealed as susceptible to historical contingencies and alternative readings.


From a cultural materialist perspective, a play by Shakespeare is both implicated and embroiled in often complex ways in its own historical and cultural moment, and can also generate more meanings, can be made to mean more things, as it is reproduced at other historical and cultural moments.  The question of how a play means often opens up into a wider question of how a culture means -- how a society may rehearse its ideologies, anxieties, and desires through performances, critical readings, or even what passes for a general understanding of Shakespeare’s plays at particular historical junctures.  The fictional world of a Shakespeare play, once locally embodied on the stage or in a popular magazine, provides opportunities for examining and/or shaping the actual conditions of the audience’s world.  In the case of Henry V, the play acts as a magnet, picking up what is in the air – although, of course, the winds always shift and that air keeps changing.  I hope that these three visions in and of the play, and in each case their historical contingency, might provide a useful way to make the ideas of cultural materialism more comprehensible to undergraduate students of Shakespeare, who may not always know a Terence Hawkes from a handsaw.


Works Cited


Berry, Ralph.  Changing Styles in Shakespeare.  London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981.


Forbes Jr., Malcolm S.  “They Can’t Take This Away From Bush.”  Forbes 1 Feb. 1993: 25.


Hawkes, Terence.  Meaning By Shakespeare.  London: Routledge, 1992.


Jackson, Shannon.  “Professing Performance.”  TDR 45 (Spring 2001): 84-95.


Novak, Michael.  “Miracle in the Desert.”  Forbes 1 April 1991: 62-3.


Savran, David.  “Choices Made and Unmade.”  Theater 31.2 (2001): 89-95.


Shakespeare, William.  Henry V.  Ed. Gary Taylor.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.


Sinfield, Alan.  Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.


Taylor, Gary.  Introduction.  Henry V.  By William Shakespeare.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.  1-74.