When it comes to reading Shakespeare versus viewing Shakespeare, I say do both. I don’t think I’d get half as much out of movie versions or live performances without also reading the script, but each time I’ve seen Shakespeare performed I’ve felt like I got something out of it I wouldn’t have from the script alone. Personally, I like to read the plays first and see them afterwards, which is what I did with Henry V. After finishing my reading of it last week, I watched the 1989 Kenneth Branagh movie.
The whole movie is dark and gritty – not inappropriately so, but more than the play necessarily demands. It adds a long, dialogue-free battle sequence in place of several short scenes, and it cuts humorous moments in favor of emphasizing tragic ones. Any adaptation of Shakespeare has to decide what aspects of the story it’s going to focus on, and this is clearly a gritty historical epic. It’s also taken out of its original medium, making the chorus’ request for the viewers to use their imagination redundant. On stage, it’s impossible to show what a real battle would look like, but movies can come much closer. However, that’s something that couldn’t be avoided except by cutting the chorus altogether, and that would be a shame.
The flashbacks from Henry IV make a world of difference. I don’t regret not reading Henry IV first, but I do think seeing that the little group of unsavory supporting characters are King Henry’s former friends changes the way I see some of his actions. In that light, the play is the story of a young king who chooses his kingdom over his friends, a theme that’s emphasized by contrasting his friendly banter with these men in the flashbacks and his harsh decisions in the present day. This theme is even woven into in the scene in which he unveils three of his nobles’ treason. By addressing so much of his speech just to one of the three, Branagh gives the impression that this man was someone King Henry truly trusted, making the betrayal all the more personal and Henry’s decision to execute the men harsher than it would be otherwise.
I’ve said before that King Henry V – as Shakespeare portrays him – comes across as morally ambiguous, but not pointlessly cruel. Branagh’s portrayal captures this perfectly: the relief on his face when the town of Harfleur surrenders; the single tear when he condemns an old friend to death; the desperate tone of his prayer after visiting the soldiers in disguise; the gentle way he courts Princess Katherine after fighting a war against her people. He’s ambitious, he’s ruthless, but he’s not without a conscience. It would be easy to lean too heavily toward making him a flawless hero, or even toward exaggerating his negative qualities, but the movie kept a good balance.
If you can’t tell, I absolutely loved it.