Chorus Manipulation in King Henry the Fifth
The Chorus in Henry V serves several functions, but the most intriguing is how he pulls the play and audience together into a personal relationship which allows the audience to connect to a deeper experience. Unlike its Greek template which uses a chorus of many, Shakespeare fuses his Chorus into a single personality and establishes a camaraderie that informs, confides, presents, and manipulates the audience’s imagination and emotional response. In addition to being informative and personable, the Chorus, because of its classic roots and traditions, lends further legitimacy to the awareness of nationalism.
The real Henry V
Calling Upon the Muse
Shakespeare begins his play with a classical device by calling upon the muse. Epic poetry traditionally calls upon the muse in its opening lines which, instead of crediting the author with its creation, humbly gives credit to the realm of the gods. Shakespeare sets his audience up to think of his play in more divine terms especially where king and country are concerned. He likens the king to Mars, the god of war, which hints of the action to come, and elevates Henry to god-like stature. He personifies “Famine, Sword, and Fire” by having them “Crouch for employment” “leashed” “at his [king’s] heels” (I.Prol.6-9) giving the King immortal-like power. The Chorus then moves into a more direct relationship with the audience where he addresses the “gentles all” (I.Prol.8), and introduces some of the themes to come. Agincourt would, of course, immediately pique their interest. He follows with a series of questions drawing his audience in further, and once he has their attention instructs them on using their imaginations to create the proper setting. When he asks them to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;” (I.Prol.23) he lends the audience a power not ordinarily experienced. Further responsibility is entrusted to them in “For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings” (I.Prol.28). The audience is fully captured and ready to “Admit … [the] Chorus to this history” (I.Prol.32), where he will inform and involve his charge over the next two hours.
In the second Prologue the Chorus appeals to the youth in the audience by granting honour to their counterparts of Henry’s time who were willing to trade livelihoods for the implements of war to defend king and country. They aren’t just soldiers, they are all “English Mercuries” (II.Prol.7) with “winged heels” spreading their message of righteousness to the French who “Shake in their fear” (II.Prol.11). He doesn’t give them just any leader, but a leader who is “the mirror of all Christian kings” (II.Prol.6). Although he speaks of the play’s characters his carefully chosen words would strike the hearts of all his audience members who were, in the original production, English.
King Henry V
Henry V tomb in Westminster Abbey
Leading Them On
Nationhood is the predominant theme, and the Chorus furthers England’s honour and righteousness by using a David and Goliath comparison when he describes England as a “little body with a mighty heart” (II.Prol.17). This also hints at the eventual outcome because “David” is not only on the side of God, but David always wins. And when dishonour is found within the ranks of the English King the onus is put on the French because “France hath found … [it] out” (II.Prol.20), suggesting that because the dishonourable machinations of the French have capitalised upon “a nest of hollow bosoms” (II.Prol.21), they have somehow created the dishonour found within the English heart. They have not only capitalized upon the weakness, but have encouraged it with “gilt” and created “guilt”. Like a true storyteller the Chorus doesn’t reveal the outcome of Henry’s confrontation of those found treasonous, which in turn creates tension and interest in the audience.
The audience is treated to a vivid description of Henry and his troops as they sail the channel to France. The Chorus informs his audience using many typical sailing images, drawing them in with a sense of the ordinary. All Londoners were familiar with such images and able to identify with them. Having the fleet described as “A city on th’inconstant billows dancing” (III.Prol.15) creates a sense of unity even though the city, or representatives of the nation, are being tossed around by the actions of other seemingly stronger forces. The Chorus does not forget those who are left behind and sets the motherland as being “guarded with grandsires, babies, and old women” (III.Prol.30) appealing to all segments of the population by acknowledging them and their support, even though they have “not arrived to pith and puissance” (III.Prol.31).
Imbedded within these ordinary images is yet another reference to Greek mythology and divinity as Henry is described as a young Apollo. The sun god Apollo is equated with the arts, balance and order; therefore Henry is not just likened to a god, but a righteous and ordered god. At the end of his soliloquy the Chorus encourages his audience to “Work, work your thoughts” (III.Prol.25) to envision the unfolding events off stage as Henry refuses to give in to France’s offers of Katherine, and “some petty and unprofitable dukedoms” (III.Prol.31) – words which confirm to the audience of the righteous actions of the English. Again the Chorus pleads for his audience to be “kind” to the performance, as the sounds of battle begin.
Sound is a device used well in the opening of the fourth Prologue. The Chorus, through his description of inconsequential noises helps to create tension and expectancy – the quiet before the storm. Through phrases like “hum of either army”, “secret whispers”, “high and boastful neighs piercing the night’s dull ear”, “busy hammers” and “cocks do crow, clocks do toll,” (IV.Prol.5-17) the audience prepares for battle. The Chorus paints an audio picture to compensate for the audience’s impaired sight -- a dark which is “pouring dark/ [and] Fills the wide vessel of the universe (IV.Prol.2-3). Sitting on the edge of its seat, the audience barely breathes as King Henry “the royal captain of this ruined band/ … visits all his host” (IV.Prol.29-32). The previous references to Henry being god-like are now demonstrated to the audience as he unites with his men in a personal way and they are able to “... pluck(s) comfort from his looks:/ A largess universal, like the sun” (IV.Prol.42-43). Despite the tension and the odds against the English army which is sick and undermanned, the smell of victory is granted the audience as the Chorus ends his scene stating, “we shall much disgrace/ …. The name of Agincourt” (IV.Prol.49-52).
This Shakespeare portrait is by an unknown artist. It's oil on panel, late 1600s to early 1700s.
In the fifth Prologue with victory safely tucked away the Chorus excuses the production’s misuse of the Unities, but explains that the “times … numbers, and due course of things … cannot in their huge and proper life/Be here presented” (V.Prol.5-7). He describes victory celebrations of the King and his people upon his return to England. Like a true Christian king, Henry is “free from vainness and self-glorious pride;/Giving full trophy, signal, and ostent,/ Quite from himself to God” (V.Prol.20-22).Yet almost within the same breath Henry is described as a Caesar and London is a Rome which harkens back to a basic Roman tenet of a civilization founded on conquest and victory. Subtly suggested is the right and might of a noble nation, yet tempered with the goodness of Christianity, directing the audience to experience pride in their heritage. The Chorus takes his audience back to France where formal surrender of the French and reparations in the form of a Queen will finalize the deal.
In his epilogue the Chorus tends to deflate the pride of a people in their country, but not their King. The unfortunate events which follow the glorious reign of King Henry V are neither his nor his infant son’s responsibility, but of the “many [that] had the managing” (V.II.394). Henry V is remembered as a “star of England …/ By which the world’s best garden he achieved” (V.II.388-89). And as the King was humbled to God in Act V Prologue, so too is the author humbled by his “... rough and all unable pen” (V.II.383) which helps to bring full circle the idea of the author’s call to the muse for aid in telling the tale of divine and glorious events.
Punctuating with mythological references of gods and the divine rights of kings, the Chorus takes his audience on a journey through a piece of their history, invigorating the power of nationhood. Using these and other methods he directs the audience to the desired efforts of the author, keeps them interested and informed despite the vast differences of time and space. Like a radio colour commentator used in a modern sportive event, the Chorus adds an invaluable element to the play. Without him confusion would lose the audience’s interest. His choice of words and descriptions often play on their sense of pride and emotion. While their emotions are often manipulated by the Chorus, the manipulation only succeeds in completing the words and efforts of a playwright bent on telling a tale of historic pride, which reminds the audience of their possibilities and potentials.
Shakespeare, William. The Comedies, The Histories. London, Great Britain:
Octopus Books Limited, 1986.