Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Clocks Do Toll

I'm not wholly sure why, but I was thinking last night of how brilliant the opening of the Chorus for Act IV of Henry V is, in narrative terms:

Now entertain conjecture of a time
When creeping murmur and the poring dark
Fills the wide vessel of the universe.
From camp to camp through the foul womb of night
The hum of either army stilly sounds,
That the fixed sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other's watch:
Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
Each battle sees the other's umber'd face;
Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
Piercing the night's dull ear, and from the tents
The armourers, accomplishing the knights,
With busy hammers closing rivets up,
Give dreadful note of preparation:
The country cocks do crow, the clocks do toll,
And the third hour of drowsy morning name.
Proud of their numbers and secure in soul,
The confident and over-lusty French
Do the low-rated English play at dice;
And chide the cripple tardy-gaited night
Who, like a foul and ugly witch, doth limp
So tediously away. The poor condemned English,
Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires
Sit patiently and inly ruminate
The morning's danger, and their gesture sad
Investing lank-lean; cheeks and war-worn coats
Presenteth them unto the gazing moon
So many horrid ghosts.

That is good, solid storytelling there. The use of multiple ways of expressing the opposition between the French and the English is especially effective, and the asymmetry sets up the later "little touch of Harry in the night" as it should.

Critics have been very hard on the Chorus in Henry V. They've questioned why it's even needed. I don't think that's all that difficult; the obvious point is that we are not just getting Henry himself, we are getting Henry becoming legend. The audience itself is a participant in what the play is about: it is our thoughts that deck the kings, our imaginary forces that make Henry a legend. The Chorus parts are also often accused of 'telling, not showing'. I'm on record as thinking that, while such a slogan as 'show, don't tell' can have legitimate meaning in particular circumstances, it is trash if taken as a general principle. In reality, however, the Chorus parts are 'showing' exactly what needs to be shown: that the tale cannot be crammed into the theatre, that its only suitable stage is the mind itself, that the players and scenery on the stage are only 'ciphers' that guide the real play, in the imagination. Storytelling is in its own way as much a dramatic art as playacting. And the fact of the matter is that the Chorus parts are all excellent storytelling. This interweaving of storytelling and stagecraft is entirely necessary to the play.

4 comments:

  1. MrsDarwin3:14 PM

    Storytelling is a fine word to describe this monologue. It's full of imagery and mood, almost cinematic in the way it cuts to different parts of the waiting forces under the moon.


    I'm coming to loathe the "show, don't tell" advice; nothing has been more inhibiting to my own writing than to try to make everything subtext.


    We're on a Henry V kick here, having just watched the HV from The Hollow Crown and being just about to rewatch Kenneth Branagh's version. I remember Derek Jacobi being very effective as the Chorus in Branagh's version, highlighting the fact that we were watching a dramatic performance. I don't remember how this monologue went over in The Hollow Crown, or whether it had been cut; that HV actually put me to sleep. I could barely prop my eyes open during this section, and the battle scenes were criminally dull. It was a shame, too, with a prime actor like Tom Hiddleston playing Henry, but he was wasted in the part. The Henry/Katherine scene was truly the most shapeless, characterless piece of business; a school for wayward boys could have put on a more defined performance. I blame the director. The Hollow Crown's Richard III was some of the finest Shakespeare I've ever seen committed to film, and Ben Whishaw was a revelation as Richard, just brilliant. Henrys IV were also quite good, and to hear Simon Beale Russell play Falstaff was to understand it, even if a lot of the lines don't make much sense to read. But Henry V... It was cut viciously, to a fault. A shame, and a waste of a lot of good talent.

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  2. branemrys6:36 AM

    I think I remember liking the Chorus in Branagh's version. I also thought it handled the Kate scenes fairly well; I think those scenes can often go very far toward making or breaking the play.

    I haven't seen any of the Hollow Crown ones, but I'll have to look out for Richard III.

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  3. MrsDarwin3:11 PM

    We watched Branagh's last night as a family. As Henry's men charged toward the enemy, Jack bellowed, "Go Americans!" Henry V: whipping up patriotic fervor through the ages.

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  4. branemrys4:08 PM

    That's awesome!

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