‘Guilty in Defence’: Shakespeare’s Radical Political Theatre

The people, in Shakespeare’s view, are the foundation and necessary source of the very power that oppresses and destroys them. This horrible power, is ours to reclaim for liberation and peace: to do so, we only have to see what we are permitting the ruling class to do to us.

by Ken Jessome

The Royal Shakespeare Company this past April and May ran, in its entirety, Shakespeare’s great eight-play history cycle dealing with the Wars of the Roses and the events leading up to them, and I wish I had been in England then to see it. And I wish we all might one day see a truly worthy production of these plays, because I believe Shakespeare is our most radical theorist and unforgiving critic of power, and that it is in the history plays, his strictly political theatre, that he thoroughly exposes power’s nihilistic core, showing it to be at once both empty and rotten. Shakespeare’s intention in these eight plays is to set the murderous Machiavelli to school, and show how power, exercised on behalf of the few against the many, is first established and then maintained: through always the spilling of innocent blood. And, as well, he wants to show how power does this secretly, through intrigue and manipulation, while disguising itself with an attractive mask of virtue, winning the loyalty of the very people it seeks to enslave and destroy.

Shakespeare routinely expressed his most subversive ideas indirectly, mostly through irony, but the always reliable moral insensitivity and intellectual complacency of establishment thinkers also permitted him to be often surprisingly blunt. Reading the history plays today, it is hardly possible for any but the most indoctrinated critics to miss the playwright’s contempt for the ruling class and their toadies, and his hatred of their exploitation and lies. And in the last play he wrote in the cycle, Henry V, it is as if he is daring the propagandists to distort what he is so obviously saying. Shakespeare’s irony, as taunting as it often was before, is here boiling over into outraged protest. He was probably writing Henry V at a time of particularly intense war-time jingoism and patriotic fever, during the expedition of the warmongering Earl of Essex to put down rebellion in Ireland, and anyway the playwright is by now fed up. Shakespeare, in the last of these eight plays, is practically begging his audience: Open your eyes, and finally see the bloodthirsty bastards for what they are!

Henry V begins with a back-room conspiracy, as two high-ranking priests, representing the English church, plot to bribe the king, create fraudulent legal justification for an imperialist war, and deprive the poor of parliamentary aid. Church, scholarship, and law are immediately shown to be acting in collusion with power against the interests and welfare of the people. The recently crowned Henry V, following his father’s death-bed advice to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels, is determined to unite the country behind him in a war against France. Our two clerical bloodsuckers B horseleeches Shakespeare would say B the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely, fully understand Henry and his plans. The reason they are offering the king an enormous sum to finance the war, as well as concocting a transparently absurd legal justification for his claim to the French throne, is because Parliament is considering a bill to confiscate half the lands belonging to the church, a bill they desperately want killed.

Shakespeare in his political plays never misses a chance to stress the miserable lot of the common people, from the wretches fettered in our prisons to the innocent French victims of England’s imperial wars. Here he goes out of his way to point out, through the dramatically unlikely mouthpiece of Canterbury, that the wealth from this confiscation of Church lands would, among other things, serve for the relief of lazars and weak age, / Of indigent faint souls past corporal toil, / hundred almshouses right well supplied. Of course no such aid will be provided because Henry immediately accepts the bribe as well as the farcical legal justification the priests will provide for his campaign to steal the French throne.

Henry V is the most thorough-going analysis and condemnation of war and imperialist adventure in our literature, still unsurpassed and absolutely relevant today. Yet it has traditionally been touted by establishment scholars and critics as a celebration of jingoism, bloodshed, and monarchy as the three most resounding cheers for British imperialism in the literary canon. Generations of students have been brainwashed by state ideologists posing as scholars to see the history plays as Tudor propaganda. And Shakespeare’s Henry is approvingly seen by these frauds echoing the ironic Chorus as the mirror of a Christian king, and the model of all that a British monarch should be. (Our poesy-sniffing aesthetes assure the more artistic souls that Shakespeare is beyond morality, not to even mention anything as grotty as ideas, and would certainly never ever, not even once, lower himself to actually saying something, but even if he did it wouldn’t be anything as crass as something political, but he wouldn’t say anything anyway!)

Shakespeare, throughout the cycle, actually portrays this model Christian conqueror as a glory-seeking, lying butcher and heartless political operator, whose every deeply-calculated move leads to nothing but death, destruction, and waste; and the playwright repeatedly identifies Henry with Satan, the archetypal father of lies and murder. Henry’s legendary victory at Agincourt against the French is shown to be ultimately as much a bloody and futile farce as today’s Mission Accomplished in Iraq. For Shakespeare, Henry V’s only real importance lies in how his short-lived success in achieving glory for himself and booty for the aristocracy allows the playwright to vividly illustrate for his audience the workings of state terror and the stratagems of power.

For the ruling-class and some parasitic adventurers, Henry V’s French campaign holds out the promise of great plunder. Pistol, a criminal companion of Henry’s youth and one of the king=s real mirror images, says, rallying his band of brothers in theft, Let us to France, like horseleeches, my boys, / To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck! But this profit motive for war, powerful as it is, is less than half the story. Shakespeare is more interested in showing us the blood-drenched sadism, psychopathy, misogyny, and sheer love of mendacity that drives Henry and the ruling class. The king’s ultimatum made outside the gates of Harfleur, calling for surrender of the French town, is a long vicious orgy of a speech that allows Shakespeare to give a detailed deconstruction of the Western Christian warrior, genocidal and misogynist from Constantine to the present U.S. president:

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 flowering infants.

What is it then to me, if impious war

Arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends

Do with his smirched complexion all fell feats

Enlinked to waste and desolation?

What is=t to me, when you yourselves are the cause,

If your pure maidens fall into the hand

Of hot and forcing violation?


. . . . why, in a moment look to see

The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand

Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;

Your fathers taken by the silver beards,

And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;

Your naked infants spitted upon pikes


What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid?

Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed?

This speech nicely illustrates the real first principle of Christian Just War theory: when a respectable, church-going power invades another country, the resulting destruction and misery can only be the responsibility of the victim, since the invaders are Christians and thus necessarily altruistic and well-intentioned. The victims are always guilty in defence, since the Christian powers are carrying out God’s will, and to resist the workings of God in history is to be guilty of the unforgivable sin against the Holy Ghost. Such is the history of kingly power, from the beginning to the end of the world, wrote the radical William Hazlitt, commenting on Henry V, in the first radical reading of Shakespeare to be published (in 1817; no wonder Hazlitt was ostracized by his peers, condemned as a whore-master and died in poverty, or that his work quickly went out of fashion).

As befits the mirror of a Christian king, Henry is constantly referring to God, praying to God, and proclaiming that God is on his side: God for Harry! he cries, leading the charge at Gincourt. After defeating the French, he publicly refuses to take responsibility for the victory: O God, thy arm was here; / And not to us, but to thy arm alone / Ascribe we all. . . . Take it God, / For it is none but thine. Harry really does insist on this bloody idolatry: Abe it death proclaimed through our host / To boast of this, or take that praise from God / Which is his only. All modesty, piety, and innocence, the king orders masses to be said and hymns to be sung in thanks to his divine scapegoat.

Also especially interesting in the Harfleur ultimatum is the pervasive sexual imagery, which is common in Shakespeare when warriors talk of combat. In an earlier play in the cycle, Henry, during a respite on the battlefield, congratulates his younger brother who has that day experienced his first killing: Come, Brother John, full bravely hast thou fleshed / Thy maiden sword . Speaking outside the French town of Harfleur, Henry plays on half-achieved as equivalent to half-taken in sex, and the play on martial violence and rape continues throughout the speech. It is resistance that makes Henry hard, and realizing this the Governor of Harfleur decides, he informs Henry, to yield our town and lives to thy soft mercy. It is for this reason that Henry immediately loses all interest in the town, leaving its fortification to others, and announces he will retire to Calais with his soldiers for some R&R.

The ordinary person, of course, has no obsessive preoccupation with theft, sexual violation, lies and murder, and must be brought to martial madness not by fantasies of rape and pillage, but by nationalist and religious propaganda, and appeals to patriotic sentiment and masculine valour. This is the reason in Henry V for the presence, unusual in Shakespeare, of a Chorus. This figure is used to comment on and express a crucial theme of the history cycle: the manufacture of consent. The chorus works the audience in the same way Henry and the nobility work the nation; however, the Chorus occasionally invites us to see through him and his tricks. In fact, the Chorus, often thought to have been originally played by Shakespeare, not only invites but pleads with the audience to sit and see, / Minding true things by what their mockeries be. If we will just see, Shakespeare says, he will demonstrate for us, through his satire, the lies, violence, and evil, sly tricks of the ruling-class.

One good example of this revealing of the manufacturing of consent by the Chorus is when he describes the irresistible force of rising war fever, once the king and his propagandists have worked up anti-French sentiment. Now all the youth of England are on fire, he says, and humourously points out, in two deeply suggestive lines, the irrationality the fever creates in young men: They sell the pasture now to buy the horse, / Following the mirror of all Christian kings. That is, they happily bankrupt themselves giving up their real subsistence, both materially and spiritually to emulate the macho star of their day, as they rush off to kill the French enemy.

Here we have the ultimate message of the history cycle: how power, to be successful, must unite the people behind it by singling out the most likely Great Satan that the political moment affords. Henry, everyone agrees, is successful because he can unite all the people behind him: the means by which he does this, however, is never stated B that is, through the ceaseless scapegoating of domestic and foreign enemies. He, in fact, manufactures enemies, and in every one of his scenes Henry is either presiding over some poor scapegoat’s murder or preparing for it. Power is a Moloch that always requires the blood of innocent domestic and foreign victims; in no other way can rulers achieve or maintain power. Henry V is Shakespeare’s greatest practitioner of the black arts of political power.

Henry knows that the only real source of power lies with the people. He knows that it is only by orchestrating bloodshed, in a mock theatre of innocence, that he can harness this power to his own ends. That is, the people, in Shakespeare’s view, are the foundation and necessary source of the very power that oppresses and destroys them. This horrible power, he is saying, is ours to reclaim for liberation and peace: to do so, we only have to see what we are permitting the ruling class to do to us.


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