QueenʼsMen Editions

About this text

  • Title: The Famous Victories of Henry V: Introduction
  • Author: Mathew Martin
  • Textual editors: Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best
  • Production editor: Peter Cockett

  • Copyright Mathew Martin. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Mathew Martin
    Editors (Text): Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
    Not Peer Reviewed

    The Famous Victories of Henry V: Introduction

    History and Comedy: Clowning in Famous Victories

    Famous Victories' mingling of historical perspectives finds concrete expression in its mingling of the serious and the comic. Scenes featuring such comic characters as John and Derrick, whose role was played by the famous clown Richard Tarlton, alternate regularly with the scenes dominated by the English and French nobility. Corbin and Sedge remark that "One of the undoubted achievements of Famous Victories lies in its mingling of clowns and conquest at a time when 'heroicall histories' contained few examples of low-life humour" (25). This achievement, which later Elizabethan dramatists such as Marlowe and Shakespeare would incorporate into their own dramaturgy, is significant, Corbin and Sedge contend, because it "offers not 'relief' but a balance of perception to the audience" (27). Scene ten, in which the prospect of the war with France is shown from the perspective of commoners being pressed into the king's army, provides one example of this balance of perception; scene twenty, which interposes a scene featuring the spoils of war for the commoners, shoes and clothes stripped from corpses left on the battlefield, between two scenes featuring the spoils of war for Henry, a crown and a royal wife, provides another. The scenes featuring the comic characters' involvement in the war are deeply funny but not frivolous.

    20Other critics have argued that the comedy and clowning are ideologically edgier that the word "balance" might allow. Nichols, for example, argues that "the comic scenes effectively diminish the significance of the chronicle version of Henry's life" (162). Indeed, for Nichols the critical deflation can be the effect of the comic not just alternating with but, more forcefully, seeping into ostensibly serious moments in the play, such as Prince Henry's sudden reformation in scene six: "Henry's sudden, motiveless transformation, the overly emotional and weepy exchange that occurs between father and son, the melodramatic passing of the dagger and the prince's tearing off of his cloak are all part of what could be a very funny scene and a parody of the chronicle story as it was known to the play's original audience" (173).

    Brian Walsh suggests that the comedy has a function akin to the Brechtian "alienation effect." "Clowning with history is a signature move of the Queen's Men, a move that highlights the temporality and artifice of historical knowledge" (48), he writes. Walsh's argument here emerges out of his analysis of scene five of the play, in which John and Derrick repeat the previous scene's dramatization of Prince Henry hitting the Lord Chief Justice for his refusal to release Cutbert Cutter. As Robert Weimann puts it, in this scene "the delicate subject of princely prerogative is played out once more, but this time from a complementary and thoroughly plebeian point of view" that reveals its farcical and inequitable nature (188). If, as Derrick exclaims before he and John commence their re-enactment, the blow that Prince Henry gave to the Lord Chief Justice illustrates "what princes be in choler" (TLN 420), then John's response is to indicate that such intemperate violence is not the prerogative of commoners: "we should have been hanged" (TLN 424). The two commoners, however, hilariously usurp that prerogative along with their aristocratic betters' identities in their muddled restaging, which leads to John confusing his real and assumed roles and to Derrick as Prince Henry mocking John the Lord Chief Justice's claim "to teach you what prerogatives mean" (TLN 453) as he hits him, exits and re-enters the stage, and concludes, "O John, come, come out of thy chair! Why, what a clown wert thou to let me hit you a box on the ear, and now thou seest they will not take me to the Fleet!" (TLN 457-459). The two clowns' re-enactment, according to Walsh, allows them critically to appropriate the past for their present purposes and pleasures: "Reenacting the incident allows them to reflect on it, while also affording them the thrill of assuming aristocratic identities and participating in the transgression of the Prince's indecorous strike" but, through his clowning, "Derrick disrupts the mimetic moment in which he and John are engaging and, by so doing, mirrors how the larger mimetic framework of the play as a representation of the past cannot be sustained" (64). For Walsh, Derrick and John's clowning in this scene exemplifies the function of the clowning throughout the play: through its clowning, "The Famous Victories of Henry V demonstrates that the enactment of history, showing the past, must unfold in the present-tense of theatrical time and so asserts that the historical time of the history play is an institutionalized construct produced in and on theatrical terms" (68).