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The Role of Chorus in Henry V

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The Role of the Chorus in Henry V

Emanating from the Classical Greek drama, “Chorus” is originally referred to a group of actors who sing, dance or recite to remark on and provide a supplementary background for the main content of the play (Britannica). With a similar purpose but different format, the Chorus role is also being used in several Shakespeare's plays. Nonetheless, its significance in the other Shakespeare’s plays could not be equated to the one in Henry V. In Henry V, through constant self-consciousness, ingenious word choices, and discrepancies between what is told and what is shown, William Shakespeare employed the role of the Chorus to cast the audience in the role of an active participant in the play.

Self-consciousness is a vital part of the Chorus and an important factor leading to its prominence. No doubt, there is an intention for an actual apology in the Chorus’s speech since there is no way a theater could show an exact replica to what really happened in history. However, does the audience really need a Chorus to tell them so? If yes, why isn't there a Chorus in the same nature in any other Shakespeare plays? That is, the Chorus’s apology on the matter is to evoke the audience’s attention and deeper consideration for the defects, but not actually begging for their forgiveness. At the very beginning of the play, the Chorus already enacts his wily trick luring the audience into a favorable and heedful state of mind regarding the play: “...But pardon, gentles all, / The flat unraised spirits that hath dared/ On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth/ So great an object/ … / O, pardon...” (Prologue 8-10, 15). Here, the word “pardon” has a dual nature. On one hand, the Chorus is indeed saying sorry. But on the other, he is saying it with pride---an expression of pride to draw in the audience.

Furthermore, while the Chorus pleads repeatedly for the audience’s imagination to wander off to remote lands of wonder, he is actually reminding them of their actual location at the theater concurrently: “Can this cockpit hold/ The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram/ Within this wooden O the very casques/ That did affright the air at Agincourt” (Prologue 12-14). If the cockpit does “hold” the vasty fields of France and the air at Agincourt, it indicates that the play itself is powerful enough to project a vivid image in the audience’s mind. Hence, the aim of the Chorus’s ostensible confession is not to seek for the audience’s understanding for the faults of the stage. Instead, it accentuates the “artistic triumph” of the play.

Discrepancies between the Chorus’s statement and what really happens in the play further trigger the audience’s critical thinking regarding the plot. Right before Act I, the Chorus portrays how godly Harry is and how tremendous his Kingdom is under his rule: “Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,/ Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,/ Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire/ Crouch for employment” (Prologue 5-8). After such flattering depiction, for certain, one must be lead to the prospect of something glorious to transpire. However, this is not the case. Contrastingly, the subsequent scene discloses a depraved political status of the kingdom. Solely for the reason of fearing the loss of “half of [their] possession” and “[for] all the temporal lands which men devout/ By testament have given to the Church/ Would [the government] strip from [them]” (I.i.8-11), Canterbury and Ely decide to persuade Henry V to war against the French and even would bribe Henry in doing so: “And in regard of causes now in hand/ Which I have opened to his grace at large/ As touching France, to give a greater sum/ Than ever at one time the clergy yet/ Did to his predecessors part withal” (I.i.77-81). Similarly, the Chorus introduces Act II by explaining the country’s patriotism before the war where “...all the youth of England are on fire, And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies./ Now thrive the armorers, and honor’s thought/ Reigns solely in the breast of every man” (II.Cho.1-4). However, the next scenes go astray from its original path. Shifting into a seedy tavern, Bardolph, Nim, and Pistol, three commoners who are heading to war soon, argue and fight over a woman and the financial advantages of the war. Most importantly, at the end of the scene, they get notified that Falstaff is dying, whose heart “the king has killed” (II.i.85). This scene shows absolutely no “honor’s thoughts” nor greatness of the king.

So, why are there such inconsistency and irony throughout the play? Human beings are really sensitive towards things that appear to be out of place, especially when there is an incongruence between what is being avowed and the “reality.” Thus, through the discrepancies, Shakespeare intended to stimulate the audience to think more profoundly and investigate deeper into the scenes. Moreover, Shakespeare wants the audience to keep in mind that even though the play is based on a real historical event, it is still a play, a fiction. This is to say, not to be a documentary, Henry V is designed to be a story, in which the story is “reality” here at the theater.

Wordplay provides instances of humor as a buffer to the seriousness of the Chorus and acts as a tool to stimulate the audience’s inquiring mind. Right before Act II, three traitors are introduced: “...and three corrupted men-/ One, Richard Earl of Cambridge, and the second, Henry Lord Scroop of Masham, and the third,/ Sir Thomas Grey, knight, of Northumberland-/ Have, for the gilt of France (O guilt indeed!),



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