"Henry V" and Lope de Vega's Principle of Audience Uncertainty

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If Shakespeare matched Lope de Vega in designing plays which perpetually surprise and challenge audiences by unexpected reversals of character and plot, it is only to be expected that these expedient discontinuities should challenge the ingenuity of academics pursuing the high rationality that the original Academy of Plato was designed to foster. Shakespeare sometimes even omits possible resolution of a plot line, as when Isabella fails to respond to the Duke's offer of marriage at the end of Measure for Measure. In other, more historical plays, such as Henry V, the audience's attitude to its hero oscillates from scene to scene. First they see him as a dupe of the Church. Next he is childishly provoked, by French superciliousness, to threats of massacre, rape and pillage. In executing this threat he proves to be near apparent failure when he is leading the expedition against France, and even ruefully concedes his family's guilt in seizing the succession to Richard II. Thereafter he is saved against all expectation by the battle of Agincourt, but yet he finishes with a vindication of the fashionable sixties aphorism, "Make love not war," by a marriage reconciling the two nations.

Norman Rabkin sees in this sequence of variables not a progression towards achievement of a fertile peace, but a calculated refusal to achieve consistency, making Shakespeare the precedent for New Critics' cult of irony and ambiguity. However, Shakespeare's contemporary, Lope de Vega, specifically advises dramatists to pursue such an oscillation of incident: "In the first act state the case; in the second entangle the incidents in such a way that until the middle of the [last] act no one can even guess at the solution. Always deceive anticipation and so it may come about that something quite remote from what is intended may come about" (Gilbert, 546). Lope's aesthetic makes such gyrations less philosophically agnostic and more a function of pursuit of audience "affect." This stress on an unexpected conclusion not obvious to anticipation may explain why critics have failed to do justice to the last scene of Henry V, which encourages us to see the final matrimonial resolution to be as meaningful as it is in the comedies. This pacifist view is confirmed by the Epilogue's recall of the English ultimate failure in France through reversion to a bellicose policy by the reviving of the Hundred Years' War under Henry VI.

References

Gilbert, Allan H., ed. 1962. Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond