I’ve only read three Shakespeare plays in my life. Henry V isn’t one of them. So I came to the movie with a chip on my shoulder, mad at myself for having not gotten familiar with a writer whose importance I’ve known about my whole life. But rather than read a summary of the play beforehand, or postpone the movie while I try to sprint through the text, I decided to just siddown and have some coffee and watch it, see if I could follow the story and maybe use it as a basis for reading the play with a little more…understanding.
My friend Steve has been reading Shakespeare his whole life, beginning when he was holed up in a basement during the plague with nothing but two pails of water and the first folio, and having taught a fair bit of it, too, he says that the best way to understand a Shakespeare text, especially if you’re intimidated, is to read it aloud with some friends. The next best way is to watch a good performance.
So that’s what I did. Can’t say I understood every bit of what was happening, but I gathered the broad strokes. Henry’s an Englishman, fighting the French. There’s some philosophy about the moral weight that a king must bear with every decision.
But who am I to say that about a Shakespeare play? My friend Steve knows these plays (as well as the stuff that was coming out contemporaneously and Shakespeare’s piecemeal biography) inside and out, so he’s got more authority in critiquing them. Normally I’d say that, understanding so little of the dialogue, what I can vouch for is whether I enjoyed the movie or not, and venture a guess at whether you might like it or not.
But how can I even say I like it if I don’t fully understand it? I can tell you I enjoy listening to “99 Luftballoons” — I dunno what it’s about. Shit’s German. What if I learned the lyrics were “Fuck Alex” on loop for three minutes? I’d probably stop liking it.
So the story of Henry V feels like it’s beyond reproach, at least for me, because whatever we might wanna argue about how everybody is entitled to like or dislike a work of art, and how their preference is perfectly legitimate and needs no defending, I’m reluctant to give any kind of verdict on something that I don’t understand — if, that is, I have reason to believe that it can be understood. Like I’m not gonna look at Tommy Wiseau’s The Room and, finding myself confused, decide that it’s gone over my head and then refrain from saying if I liked it or not. In the case of The Room, clearly, we don’t understand what’s going on because the people who made it didn’t understand what was going on. The filmmaker was disoriented. The movie is disorienting.
Henry V, on the other hand, has been around for 400 years and people’ve been reading and performing and loving it the whole time. For me to approach something with all that clout and, not understanding every word of dialogue, deem it good or bad, would make me feel pretty rotten.
But, again, getting back to the movie: what I can give a verdict on is the filmmaking, and whether the director (Laurence Olivier, who also stars) did anything interesting.
And he did. Even for somebody like me, who’s gonna understand one line in ten, the approach he takes is so cinematic — communicating one narrative with the actors’ interactions and a second narrative with the camera — that an uninitiated viewer can shake the straw out of her hair, wipe the saliva from his chin, and get some yuks.
The movie is divided into two halves. The first half isn’t just an adaptation of Henry V but a movie about a stage production of that play at the Globe Theater in London in 1600. Beautiful crane shots show us what the audience would have looked like, and how the seating was arranged. We hear what the audience would have reacted to, and how. We see how the actors interpreted tehir lines and worked in some physical humor to liven up the dialogue. (To Steve’s credit, watching the play really does help understand some things that might not bend on the page. An actor’s inflection reveals the levity or gravity in a line that I almost definitely wouldn’t have spotted if I were just reading it on my own.) What most delighted me was the incorporation of rain, which could fall at any moment through the theater’s skylight and soak the standing audience and actors alike.
The second half is a full-blown feature. Big sets for a big battle. Swordfights and campfires and galloping horses. That part’s fun to look at, and when Olivier crouches down with some soldiers and trades lines, he wears his emotions with enough clarity that, catching only the broad strokes of what he’s saying, we can still follow what’s happening. Seems like something he might have perfected on the stage. Not just getting a vibe for the performance by doing it night after night, but having to emote so’s the people five and ten rows back have an idea of what you’re up to.
The movie is a delight but for the fact that, watching it as somebody five years removed from his English degree, I don’t think I’ve encountered a movie on the List just yet that so starkly presented me with one of my limitations. I haven’t read as much Shakepseare as I ought to’ve read. Whenever I sit down to rectify this, I fail. I don’t understand every line, I get flustered, start feeling insecure — I end up slapping the book down.
That’s my own fault, though. I had the same problem with Pynchon for a long time. I’d read a couple pages, not understand what was going on, find myself totally disoriented by the style and then go home feeling stupid and hating myself. The way it finally worked is I just kept reading. Yeah, it was going over my head, but I kept reading and reading until, at maybe the tenth or fifteenth page, I started to see the rhythm, and I’d catch a joke here and there, and even though I hadn’t understood those first couple pages it would feel, by page 50, like I had. Retroactively.
With Shakespeare I’m sure it’s the case that if I just sprinted through it, didn’t beat myself up over what went over my head, and then went back through it a bit slower I would probably see what was going on. I just need to do something meditative or reaffirming so that I don’t lose heart halfway through.
It does compel me to want to finally understand Shakespeare, dig myself into it, but the confrontation has been uniformly discouraging.