Disestablishing Shakespeare Essay

2588 words - 11 pages

In Henry V, Branagh is relatively unconcerned with the actual Elizabethan context of Henry V or the historical accuracy of the film. Therefore Branagh updates Henry V through reflecting modern values and also removes the play from its political context. In correlation to the trend of literary criticism, productions of Henry V have been prone to favouring the Folio text over the Quarto text. As Patterson notes the Quarto is not only shorter than the folio but their content and politics are radically different:

The two surviving texts of Henry V point in different interpretive directions; the folio can possibly sustain the hypothesis of ideological confusion or deliberate ambiguity; whereas ...view middle of the document...

Thus, a primary reason why Branagh’s film presents Henry as a Hero is the assumed superiority of the Folio text.

Aside from arguments regarding the influence and authority of the Quarto and the Folio of Henry V, undoubtedly the most significant editorial selection in Branagh’s film is the choice to omit the killing of the French prisoners which Cedric Watts and John Sutherland highlight as the most controversial section of the play:

The most contentious element in the play for British audiences, namely Henry’s apparently criminal massacre of his helpless French prisoners in what seems suspiciously like an attack of pique, or ay best cold-blooded strategic calculation.

Henry’s outburst at Harfleur could be portrayed as a hyperbolic threat or a maddened outburst, however, the killing of the prisoners would have been more difficult to incorporate into Branagh’s portrayal of Henry because the potential violence is actually realised. Branagh shirked the challenged and decided to cut all of Act four, Scene two, except for lines 1-2 because he was afraid that Henry would appear a gallant tyrant rather than a ruthless hero:

I think I rather flunked and avoided [the killing of the prisoners], and although I make dramatic context out of the picture, I could have possibly been braver about the way we presented it and not, as I feared I would, lose the sympathy of the audience for the central character.

The treatment of prisoners of war was an extremely sensitive issue and would have heavily influenced the audience’s perception of Henry due to the film being released only seven years after the Falklands war and only half a century after the footage of emaciated corpses piled in the grounds of Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps was recorded. As David Robinson humorously but incisively remarked, “Branagh’s Henry is strictly according to the Geneva Convention.”

Although Branagh is sensitive to the sections that may decrease the audience’s sympathy and support of Henry, he is also able to garner more sympathy for Henry through editorial selections. Thus, cutting the scene of Henry ordering the killing of the French prisoners not only protects the audience’s sympathies for Henry but also enhances them because the French seem all the more barbaric for killing the young boys. Hedrick comments that Branagh “motivates the killing of the prisoners (the French attack on the luggage and boys) but does not follow through by having Henry kill them, as he does in the text” . The effect of cutting the killing of the French captives is two-fold because the murder of the prisoners is often assumed to be a response to the young British boys being slaughtered. Hence, cutting the killing of the French prisoners not only protects Henry from being perceived as a war criminal but it also enhances the audience’s sympathy for Henry because in Branagh’s film he is the victim of an irrational and malicious act of French cruelty.

In the stunning...

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