Sunday, 30 May 2010

Two kinds of men

"Defect of manner, want of government,
Pride, haughtiness, opinion and disdain:
The least of which haunting a nobleman
Loseth men's hearts and leaves behind a stain
Upon the beauty of all parts besides,
Beguiling them of commendation".
Henry IV III.1

This is one of Shakespeare's mini homilies on what is it to be "gentle" or noble in an age that aspired to such things. These were values that Shakespeare highly prized, which motivated partly his strong desire for upward class mobility. These values were behind his fully realised aspiration to be become an English gentleman, with land. These are also Christian virtues, much in keeping with "Castliglione's Courtier", favourite reading of the Protestant Sidney-Pembroke circle.

These words are addressed to Hotspur by the Earl of Worcester. Post modern Hotspur replies to him "Good manners be your speed". A modern day equivalent might be: "Keep your manners to yourself, old man. Each to his own truth".

This play exquisitely compares and contrasts two different kinds of men, two types of "hero": Henry V and Hotspur. The first type is familiar to us from 1930-50s Hollywood films. This is James Stewart who gains glory against the odds, and then wears honours lightly. The second is all film "heroes" from Marlon Brando onwards, who believe that brute strength and machismo open all life's doors.

Hotspur is a macho, post Christian, postmodern Tom Cruise, all muscle, coordination and fire. The Prince of Wales, future Henry V is a subtler kind of military hero, who uses religion, rhetoric and reason as weapons. Shakespeare's play clearly shows that skill and reason win out over machismo, bravado and passion, in the end. In this sense the play is Biblical: those who "live by the sword" do indeed "die by the sword".

I have been meditating on the touching dialogues in the play, between the handsome, and to some extent "sexy" Hotspur and his loving wife, Kate. He makes it clear that she comes second to his lust for battle, while in the sub-text shows, that he still has feelings for her. "Manhood" for him is his undoing: she is the voice of Christian reason, to which he should be listening. This voice speaks through her romantic longings trying to hold him back, or at least put him in touch with his suppressed real self.

In the sequel play,"Henry V", Prince, now King Henry, who is much less "sexual"in the modern sense than Hotspur but is recalled as a real English hero, has more genuine admiration for women than Hotspur. Therefore, with more more humility, he woos his future wife Catherine de Valois (Elizabeth 1st's great-great-grandmother through her second marriage to Owen Tudor). After winning the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V tells her that war and weapons make men hard, but hopes that in spite of such deficiencies in himself, she will perceive some romantic attractions in a rational man of humility who offers her his heart - and "England" too. Indeed in history, he gives her a descent of kings. Our present Queen is her descendant not Henry Vths.

Shakespeare often portrays romantic eros as the means of revelation of character. He tells us to "double listen" to it i.e. to listen to it but to listen to reason, too

"Never ignore romantic love: Providence may be in it" the Bard teaches. "But use your reason too- or you will end up like Romeo and Juliet - dead or ruined".

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