Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Three Henrys

Today's notes from the Ivory Tower are being pulled from two sections: Shakespeare and Film.

Specifically, the three "Big" film adaptations of Shakespeare's Henry V. The history plays are generally less well known than other works, but once it gets out that Loki plays Henry in the newest film adaptation, I rather expect that to change. Henry V... There are some phenomenal speeches for a king in that Play, ranging from Henry's first monologue, declaring hideous war on the French because the Dauphin was a bit of an ass, to "Once More unto the Breach, dear friends", to the speech to the mayor of Harfleur. The big speech for Henry, though, the one where you want to have the audience rising up out of their seats by the end of, is the St. Crispin's Day speech.

The Riverside full text of that speech looks like this:

King: What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
           -Henry 4.3.18-67

For those of you who didn't read that too closely, you'll be happy to know that Olivier, Branagh and Hiddleston all have relatively uncut film versions of this speech that I'm going to spend some time on here.

First, the one, the only, the terribly done: Laurence Olivier (1944)

I've never understood all the hype that surrounds Laurence Olivier. He's making the classic blunder of using 1930's stage acting techniques on camera in the 1940's during a war. (Incidentally, Henry V is England's premier war play. Whenever they trot out Henry V, something is going down! Although in the case of WWII, they had to REALLY tone down all the slurs about the French. That really wouldn't have been cricket during WWII.) Everything from his stance to the modulation of his pitch and volume to his declaiming hand gestures/poses just screams "my audience is sitting between fifteen and fifty feet away in the same room...better telegraph the hell outta this". This film was meant to be propaganda though- the speech itself is meant to raise the blood of a hopelessly outnumbered army. Can't imagine why that would have gone over well in 1940's England...

Next we have the also one, also only, known for being in a Harry Potter Movie: Kenneth Branagh* (1989)

Here we see a young (and entirely lipless; does that bother anyone else???) Kenneth Branagh rousing his breathtakingly outnumbered army to the twin tunes of Shakespeare's verse and Patrick Doyle's score. The music really helps make this one great, but let's give credit where credit is due: Branagh is moving effortlessly from tactic to tactic, engaging not only his soldiers, but the viewers. You want to go fight the French for him when he's done, although you can see the clear allusions to Olivier's film... right down to the supply wagon from which Henry gives us the final few lines.

And finally, we have the new, the young, the possibly Asgardian: Tom Hiddleston (2012)

Ahhh Loki... it's so much easier to be awesome without the Hulk using you as a rag doll, isn't it? In all seriousness though, this performance is intriguing for a couple of reasons. First of all, where the Branagh performance was a clear homage to the Olivier performance, Hiddleston (and of course, director Thea Sharrock; Branagh and Olivier directed their own Henrys) stepped away from the supply wagon. That's fine, the bridge and field in the background are visually pleasing and effective. Where I take issue is in Hiddleston's stepping away from the whole damn army! He is giving this speech on a bridge in front of eight noblemen. These are not the guys you have to have raring to fight right before a battle. They're commanding the field and they can be ransomed safely should the French kick the asses of the English force. The guys you have to be worried about are the foot soldiers. In other words, the guys who are outnumbered five to one, sick, desperate to go home, and the ones who would really cock up a battle if they broke and deserted en masse when the French cavalry start charging.
More than that, the text of the speech is referring to a band of brothers. Specifically:
"For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;"
Henry is talking about the dirt-poor peasants here. He isn't talking about gentling the condition of his nobles, they were born gentle. He is promising (falsely, I might add, Henry is talking out of his nether regions at this point) the peasants that they will be his, as in THE KING'S equal if they stand and fight...and somehow magically live.
Henry V is a phenomenal play, one of my favorites. And while I do really dislike Olivier and Branagh is my favorite, bear in mind that Hiddleston's acting is top notch. The choice to make the speech to eight nobles is a directorial choice, so don't toss Loki out of Asgard for it.
Hopefully you enjoyed these Notes from the Ivory Tower! Stay tuned for more.
*For those of you who are interested in more Branagh acting, a couple of my favorite scenes of his from Much Ado about Nothing are linked here and here.

Monday, October 28, 2013


After a truly infuriating day at grad school, I'm going to go ahead and write something fun. In this instance, the notes getting pulled from the Ivory Tower are about... Spiderman. And Shakespeare. With a small detour into Carl Jung!

So: your basic Spiderman origin story has a teenage whiz-kid getting bitten by a radioactive spider and somehow getting both great power and great responsibility. Comic Book fans will know this schtick. What interests me, however, is not the origin of a super hero, but the origin of the origin story.

And now for a brief detour to Jung's philosophy on the way myth is translated!

Carl Jung believed that humanity shares a collective unconscious, and a history. It is these two ways that myths, particularly (for this blog) creation myths. A core essence of a creation myth would get passed from people to people, like a massive game of telephone, complete with the hilarious distortions. Except in the case of creation myth telephone, if you miss a detail you fill it in with a cultural value and belief of yours instead of the giant blue doink from Watchmen.

This eventually leads to what we call Universal Archetypes. A Universal Archetype is basically (according to Jung) the collective experiences of humankind, all put into a giant crucible, from which the crap is burned off and the dross comes out as the collective unconscious from which we build archetypes. A good example of this is the Peter Pan complex, which we all know from our various childhoods of either Classic Disney or Spielberg's Hook, depending on how much your parents loved you.

How does this tie into Spiderman and Shakespeare? I'm about to get there.

In Shakespeare's little known Romance (and trust me, I use this word in its loosest possible sense!) "The Winter's Tale", the lunatic king of Sicilia (with whom we shall never go in against when DEATH is on the line!) has a speech in which he... Well, let me let him speak for himself:

There may be in the cup
A spider steep'd, and one may drink; depart,
And yet partake no venom (for his knowledge
Is not infected), but if one present
Th' abhorr'd ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider.
                             - Leontes 2.1.39-45

Given 400-ish years of time for this to make its way into the world's collective unconscious, it's clear to see: Leontes drank out of a cup with spidery fluids inside and went off his nut. Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider and got Spidey-sense. Clearly humanity has gotten much nicer in 400 years...At least about spiders driving you insane anyways. Peter Parker gets to defeat bad guys, but Leontes had to watch his wife and son die, plus he had his henchman leave his infant daughter out for the bears. I know which spider I'd rather come into contact with!

Hopefully you enjoyed this set of Notes from the Ivory Tower, next time should be equally as random!