Reliable Narrator?

Literary critics LOVE to discuss the concept of the reliable (or usually UNreliable) narrator. And in fiction, it’s a valid discussion. In drama, usually, however, not so much. In drama, the events are enacted, not retold, so the concept of a narrator, reliable or not, is not up for discussion. In Henry the Fifth, though, this may not be the case. If a play can have a narrator, a Chorus would be it, and Henry the Fifth has six choral instances, one at the beginning of each of the five acts, and an epilogue at the close.

In the opening Prologue, the Chorus, beyond telling us the audience to help out setting the stage with our “imaginary forces” (Prologue, 18), creates a martial atmosphere:

  • warlike Harry
  • the port of Mars
  • sword, and fire
  • casques
  • high-upreared and abutted fronts

Only when we begin act one, war is two acts away, and what we get first is a scene of clerical scheming, and then a scene of political rationalizing and response. In neither does our Henry seem a “warlike Harry” (Prologue, 5).

In the prelude to Act Two, the Chorus tells us that in the lead-up to war, “all the youth of England are on fire” (II.Chorus, 1). He then closes by telling us to “Southampton do we shift our scene” (II.Chorus, 42). There’s only one problem (er, make that two): We don’t go to Southampton, but rather to the tavern in Eastcheap, and there we find not the youth of England, but Falstaff’s tavern-mates, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol. The threesome may be on fire–willing in some cases to “cut (each other’s) throat” (II.i.67)–but it is a furnace of drunkenness, not jingoistic militarism. Not a lot of patriotism to be found here.

Act Three’s Chorus transports us to the war in France. And as we mentioned in our plot discussion of the act, the Chorus tells us of

                the nimble gunner (who)
With linstock now the devilish cannon touches,
And down goes all before them.

— III.Chorus.32-34

While this makes for a wonderful mental image, when we get to the battle, it’s not even close to the “reality” we find there. Act Three, Scene One begins with Henry urging his soldiers BACK into battle: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; // Or close the wall up with our English dead” (III.i.1-2). They’ve attacked, been pushed back, and now Henry has to urge them into battle again. If the cannons had knocked down “all before them,” this speech rousing his soldiers would have been unnecessary.

The night before the Battle of Agincourt, Act Four’s Chorus tells us of how “a little touch of Harry in the night” (IV.Chorus.47) allows his fearful soldiers, “every wretch … (to pluck) comfort from (Henry’s) looks” (IV.Chorus.42,43). According to the Chorus, Henry spends the night “bid(ding his soldiers) good morrow wth a modest smile” (IV.Chorus.33). Instead, what we find in Act Four, Scene One, is a Henry who must disguise himself in Sir Thomas Erpingham’s cloak, who nearly is discovered by Pistol, and who ends up with a post-war challenge with Williams. Neither man, nor Williams’ mates Bates and Court, seem to pluck much comfort from the King.

Act Five’s Chorus attempts to tell us (especially those who “have not read the story” [V.Chorus.1]) about all that has happened since Agincourt and all that was “abridge(d)” (V.Prologue, 44) from our play: the march to Calais, his arrival there, his return to the English beach, his arrival at Blackheath, his triumphant return to London, and his return to France. We skip all this stuff, only to be back in France in Act Five, Scene One, dealing with the same kind of action that we witnessed in Act Four, Scene Eight: Fluellen taking care of pre-war grudges (only Act Five’s is with Pistol, instead of Act Four’s Williams). We’ve skipped much, but nothing has changed: the Chorus was completely and utter unnecessary.

The Epilogue, however, is not only necessary but interesting. It’s necessary because it ties us back to the beginning of the histories, and Henry’s son,

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

“Oft our stage hath shown” the story: and we finished reading them a little over a year ago. Also of added interest is the form the Epilogue takes: it’s a sonnet. A sonnet? Why?

I don’t know, but I find it fitting that at the end of the play, we can neither fathom or understand the logic of a narrator who was so unreliable in his choral introductions of the individual scenes of the play.

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