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Saturday, April 16, 2016

Want Irony? Read Shakespeare

Shakespeare, master of irony
I just finished reading Henry V and we went to Blackfriars Theater last night to see the play. Ouch...not a particularly good production. They turned many of the scenes into light comedy.

One that was particularly inappropriate was the tennis ball scene. The Dauphin, prince of France, insults Henry who led a loose and playful life before ascending the throne by sending him, via his messenger, a casket of tennis balls. Henry, who is about to invade France, responds calmly but you can see the rage roiling beneath his self control. Kenneth Brannagh is perfect in his understated anger as the young king. I highly recommend that film although the battle scenes are very graphic and bloody,

The scene last night was played for comedy. The king lounged on the throne with one leg over an arm. When the tennis balls are presented he responds like he's enjoying the joke then proceeds to throw balls out into the audience. I cringed.

But that is something of a digression since I want to point out the irony in Shakespeare.

Henry V is often described by critics as the model of a christian king and there is much in the play that points in that direction. It begins with him asking the clerics if he has a legitimate right to the French throne. Later in the play before the battle of Agincourt he prays and reminds God of all the ways he has tried to atone for his father usurping the crown from Richard II.

But in reality, Henry is a pragmatist, a diplomat, a politician, a great warrior, but NOT a Christian king. After the assault on Harfleur, when he stands at the gate demanding the surrender of the town, he threatens the governor saying he will have no control over his men. They will rape their women, dash the brains of their gray-haired fathers against the wall, and spit their babies on pikes. And to boot, it will be their fault, not his. I could give other examples, but that seems to me to be gruesome enough to illustrate Henry's spirit.

G.K. Chesterton is known for his paradoxes. Shakespeare should be known for his irony. Many "heroes" in Shakespeare are anything but.

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