“Game of Thrones” has returned, but I gave up on it after the first season. I found it sexist and misogynistic. If you’re going to show female nudity, then you have to show male nudity, as HBO did on “Rome.”
In any event, “GOT” had nothing on the Plantagenets, the Rolls-Royce of English royal families. They would’ve had the “GOT” characters for breakfast, spit them out and masticated the leftover bits — all to music. Brilliant and beautiful, cultured and sophisticated, they shared a passionate hatred of their enemies rivaled only by their hatred of one another. Sons against fathers, wives against husbands, brothers against brothers, uncles against nephews, cousins against cousins, the Plantagenets nonetheless managed to rule England — and at times, parts of Wales, Ireland, Scotland and France — for more than 300 years from Henry II to RIchard III (1154-1485), longer than any other English royal family.
If they aren’t exactly the Tudors when it comes to Hollywood, then the Plantagenets at least belong to a higher class of drama, having absorbed Shakespeare in a series of “Richard” and “Henry” plays. Henry II, the lusty empire builder and administrative reformer, is also the subject of two superb plays — Jean Anouilh’s “Becket” and James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter,” which respectively explore his rivalry and power struggle with his friend, chancellor and later opposing Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Thomas Becket; and with his rebellious sons, spurred by their powerful, spurned mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Henry’s great-grandson six generations removed — Henry V — is a subject of not only three of Shakespeare’s greatest plays but of an upcoming film, “The King,” starring Timothée Chalamet in the title role. It’s this Henry who has preoccupied me lately as I’ve mulled the disastrous lack of Alexandrian leadership in the White House on everything but especially immigration and at 10 Downing St. over Brexit.
Shakespeare gets much wrong historically about Henry V, mostly for theatrical reasons. According to many historians, he wasn’t ever a bad boy and he certainly wasn’t a second son as depicted in “The King.” Rather he was the eldest son and Prince of Wales of Henry IV, who had deposed and murdered his cousin, the cultivated but effete legitimate king, Richard II. Nor was “Hal” or “Harry,” or whatever you want to call the fifth Henry, an uncouth soldier who makes the French Princess Catherine of Valois laugh with his broken French as he successfully woos her to wife. Like all the Plantagenets — who were descended from the Norman William the Conqueror and hailed from Anjou — Henry spoke high French and Latin, but preferred English for business, the first English king to give his country’s native tongue a starring role in everyday affairs since the Conquest in 1066. He had an extensive library and composed and played music. Uneducated was the last thing he was.
Shakespeare also omits a fascinating sidebar in the Richard II-Henry IV rivalry: When Richard exiled Henry, he held his oldest son hostage — bonding with the boy and knighting him. So that when we come to the moment in history and literature in which Henry V talks about reburying Richard with all due honors at Westminster Abbey, he’s not merely making a political gesture to assuage rival factions in England. I think he’s also mourning a man who was a father figure, his relationship with his own father having been a prickly one.
What Shakespeare gets brilliantly right about Henry V was what President John F. Kennedy said of the equally eloquent Winston Churchill: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” The famous speech Shakespeare gives Henry V at Agincourt, in which he galvanizes the bone-tired, hungry, outnumbered English against the French on St. Crispin’s Day, Oct. 25, 1415 (“we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”), is based on words Henry actually spoke. Yes, Shakespeare made them poetic. He was, after all, Shakespeare. But the idea that you can’t govern a people unless you can convince them that we’re all in this thing called life together, that we are part of something larger than ourselves and that together we will all reap the benefits of the enterprise — that’s pure Henry.
And what of President Donald J. Trumpet? He hasn’t mobilized the English language, he’s weaponized it with his un-Shakespearean tweets that are all about his base and dividing and conquering. The latest of his communiqués is about sending migrants who are such a hate-filled obsession with him to the sanctuary cities that defy him like his native New York. You know what? Send them. We shall survive and thrive.
And what of the not-Churchillian British Prime Minister Theresa May? Part of the reason Brexit, now aptly postponed to Halloween, is such a mess is that neither she nor anyone in a leadership position in Great Britain has managed to articulate the country’s exit from the European Union in a way that is persuasive. Or to have the guts to call for a second, clarifying referendum and convince the country that it’s the right thing to do.
Social media has not made us more intelligible. Rather with it’s misspelled, ungrammatical posts and tweets, it’s emphasis on a crude visual literacy (we’re not talking Vincent van Gogh here), it’s made language, the instrument of thought, opaque.
You wonder: What would Henry have done with it?