Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) was a thoughtful and welcome Christmas present from G (my filmic friend). The plan was to view it as part of my grand Shakespeare project – perhaps comparing it to other versions or, at the very least, combining it with a reading of the play and possibly Henry IV parts 1 and 2, which chart the Henry of Lancaster’s development from wayward prince to charismatic leader of men. You are now starting to get some idea of how my projects begin to get out of hand.
I would do it just as soon as I’d finished a couple of novels – quickly polished off in early January – and The Iliad. Which was all very well, except that The Iliad is a long book – a very long book. This was further complicated when, having fallen into conversation with a neighbour about the weather project (do keep up), said neighbour kindly lent me a book about clouds, which I felt obliged to move to the top of my reading list – such are the social niceties of book lending – especially when you don’t know the person that well.
Anyway, clouds imbibed and returned with thanks, I returned to The Iliad and my growing guilt about not yet having turned my attention to Henry V.
As I say, The Iliad’s a bit on the long side, but I was determined to get to the end. The curious thing is that it’s utterly compelling even when you still have no idea who all the different characters are, who’s on which side and what on earth is going on. My personal lightbulb moment came after about 300 pages, when I realised that I actual knew who Hector was. The whole thing began to fall into place and, after another 300 pages, it’s probably fair to say that actually started to get it.
It also struck me that the worlds of Agamemnon and Henry V weren’t that different. Harry wouldn’t have been out of place amongst the beaked ships or wandering through the Argive camp. He and his knights – and their French counterparts – would have been at ease with the soldierly admiration of fine horses and well-wrought armour.
And then there’s the poetry. Superficially, there’s all the difference in the world between an epic poem designed to be declaimed at public festivals or round fires in the Ancient Greek equivalent of the mead hall over long successive winter nights and a commercial crowd-pleaser aimed at providing and an afternoon’s entertainment through the strongly visual medium of a play.
I’m not so sure, though.
We tend to think of Shakespeare as a playwright, but he was first and foremost, like the author (or authors) of The Iliad, a poet.
It used to be said that the pictures on radio were always better than those on television and, to some extent, that’s still true. The Iliad is an astonishingly visual and emotional work. Homer doesn’t just bring his characters to life – Achilles anger is visceral – but he describe everything in exquisite detail. He describes the construction of a shield – five layers of oxhide and a final layer of beaten bronze – and the way in which a spear passess through it like one of those slow motion sequences from CSI. He will often bring incidents to life by comparing them in terms familiar to shepherds or herdsmen – opening the book at random, I came across this description of a death in battle (of which there are quite a lot)
“As the bull a marauding lion cuts from the herd, tawney and greathearted among the shambling cattle, dies bellowing under the lions’s killing jaws …”
This is exactly what Chorus is doing in Henry V.
“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?”
No, of course it can’t – you need to go out on location with a bigger budget than an Elizabethan actor-manager could muster in a month of Sundays and hundreds of extras plus on-site catering, toilets and security. Failing that, you need to do what Homer did – you need to get the audience to pluck the scenes out of their imaginations …
“On your imaginary forces work … think when we talk of horses that you see them printing their proud hooves i’th’receiving earth …”
It’s almost as if there’s an unbroken thread of storytelling running from the great story tellers of the Bronze Age Mediterranean through Shakespeare to From Our Own Correspondent. I think that Homer would have been rather good on the radio.