Vol. 12, No. 3,009 - The American Reporter - October 19, 2006

Burns Out

by Maggie Burns
American Reporter Correspondent
Washington, D.C.

Printable version of this story

WASHINGTON -- Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth contains some of the great warlike speeches of all time -- "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!" - and its poetry has been pillaged for every English war since it was written in 1599.

Understandably, Henry V is one of four books now being given to military personnel in the Pentagon's "Legacy Project," recently revived:

"First published in 1943, more than 123 million "Armed Services Editions" (ASEs) were handed out to U.S. troops overseas ... the largest free distribution of fiction and non-fiction books in the history of the world. More than 1,300 titles in all were published, including ... classic works of literature by such authors as Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Melville." (http://www.warletters.com/book/asedition.html).

My father read those books in the Army in World War II - someone shipped a crate of classics to New Guinea - and mentioned later that in six months he read most of the greatest novels ever written.

The program was discontinued in 1947, according to its Web site, but now has several publishers "distributing free ASEs to American troops throughout the world and on U.S. warships."

It would be hard to fault the World War II project. The current project, however, is drawing criticism, largely because Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Melville seem to have been passed over in favor of more militaristic content. Sun Tzu's The Art of War, Allen Mikaelian's Medal of Honor, and War Letters (edited by Andrew Carroll) have all made the cut. Mark Twain's "War Prayer" has not (http://www.midwinter.com/lurk/making/warprayer.html).

But the criticism underestimates Shakespeare, if not the Pentagon. Anyone who assumes Henry V is gung-ho jingoism should read its first scene.

The play is about Henry's invading France, to conquer it and take it over for England. (Some scenes trash the French exactly they way they're being trashed today.)

But the invasion is instigated not by Henry but by two eminences behind the throne, the political Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Ely. As the play opens, they are worried, not about France, but about a threat closer to home: the House of Commons is considering a bill to confiscate half the church's possessions:

"For all the temporal lands which men devout
By testament have given to the church
Would they strip from us"

When the bishop asks repeatedly how they can ward off this threat, the archbishop comes up with his campaign idea: They will urge Henry to conquer France instead, and will give him the money to do it:

Which I have open'd to his grace at large,
As touching France, to give a greater sum
Than ever at one time the clergy yet
Did to his predecessors part withal."

France, they will argue, offers bigger booty than the Church -

The severals and unhidden passages Of his true titles to some certain dukedoms And generally to the crown and seat of France Derived from Edward, his great-grandfather

- and along with the money, they will also give his invasion the church's blessing. Incidentally, they also treat the invasion as inevitable.

And thus begins a great play, in its own ironic way, with a truly enjoyable, smarmy kick-off.

The conquest of France, of course, turns out to be a premier example of be-careful-what-you-wish-for: Henry V dies young, France rebels against the English interlopers (even in the English history plays) and expel them ignominiously within a few years, leaving English politicians quarreling over Who Lost France for two generations, and a breach between France and England - natural allies and trading partners - for three centuries.

If you can believe the literature.

Everyone and his brother has called Shakespeare "timeless," a tribute almost undeniable. The plays may become less clear on some twenty-fifth-century planet Xanax, but for now, obviously, the scene above sounds familiar to the point of allegory: just substitute "Bush uncles" for churchmen, "oil" for the French throne, any of several needed reforms for confiscation, etc.

The ironies are so neat, in fact, that it is almost irresistible to speculate about how they happened. Maybe some Pentagon desk seats a Renaissance-literature mole, using a scrivener's job and the master's tools to chisel an English-major "Kilroy was here" on the massive Iraq propaganda pedestal.

Or maybe, as the author wrote in another context, "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will."

Maggie Burns' doctorate was in Renaissance English literature and Shakespeare, and she has both taught the play and written about it. In reral life, she is the American Reporter's new Chief Washington Correspondent.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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