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A Word from Kenneth Branagh

Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross introduced me properly to Shakespeare, strange but true. It was during an early English Literature class. Our reluctant group of novice Shakespeareans were all prepared for a turgid beginning to our high school literature studies. As a mixture of nervous dread and dull groans spread around the room, Mr. Grue, our teacher, brought out an ancient record player, which he placed on his desk. There was a little excitement. Perhaps he was going to play us a recording of Romeo and Juliet and at least save us the toe-curling embarrassment of reading this incomprehensible stuff aloud.

"Listen to this," he announced in a voice that commanded attention.

Imagine our surprise when out of this Edisonian contraption came the familiar strains of the chart hit "You Are Everything." Strains is the right word, as the number began with a low orgasmic growling the rang from the seriously Mr. Gaye and a soaringly moist response from Miss Ross's much affected soprano. Mr. Grue stopped the record and faced the bemused class. Where did Shakespeare come in?

"Now what was that all about?" Perplexed faces all around.

"Sex, you twerps!"

Suppressed giggles all round. Yes, it was.

"Now open Romeo and Juliet and let's find out where Shakespeare used it."

The noises of pages turning by excited singers was deafening. I don't think I've ever looked back. Thank you, Mr. Grue.

Many years later, I often thought of Marvin and Diana's help, as I attempted to encourage people to become interested in this often-frightening literary ogre. It's not possible to trick people with stunts, but it is useful to sometimes jolt our preconceptions with the reminder (particularly potent for adolescents) that there is great sexual energy and innuendo in Romeo and Juliet and that indeed Shakespeare is rife with sexual puns. The point is that Shakespeare's preoccupations remain our preoccupations. We still have family feuds, we still remain fascinated by politics and power (and royal families), we still murder and steal, we still fall in and out of love, and we still go to war.

A play that deals with many of these issues but particularly the latter is Henry V. As a drama student, it had always interested me. I learned speeches from it for auditions. Early in my career, I had the chance to play the title role for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The more I worked on it over the years, the more it seemed to me a perfect play with which to convince the larger audience (as I had been convinced through Marvin and Diana) that Shakespeare could be exciting, understandable, and full of meaning for me and for many of us living in the latter end of the 20th century.

It was not an original thought. People who felt the same way were and are performing Shakespeare in theatres all over the world. But the very best live theatre is seen by only a tiny minority of people. The stage still carries a sense of elitism: it's expensive. In the school I attended, the students neither went to the theatre themselves nor were in an institution that could afford to take them. Yet this potential audience -- the majority audience, the audience bored or irritated by Shakespeare, the ones who couldn't depend on the invention of a teacher like Mr. Grue -- it seemed to me, they deserved access to this man who I and many others felt spoke so dramatically and inspiringly about our shared human condition. And access not to theatrical voices and stuffy acting, but to Shakespeare through a medium most of them would have grown up in -- the movies. Critics have often been divided about Henry V. A modern view is that it is jingoistic-pro-war. In fact, in 1938 a major London production was booed off the stage, because, coming as it did at the height of the Allies' attempt to pacify Hitler over Czechoslovakia, the play's producers were seen as warmongers. It's perhaps a little ironic then that just six years later in 1944 Laurence Olivier's film version was seen in just the opposite way -- as a morale booster, a call to arms. The reasons were simple and underline and how the interpretation of Shakespeare is bound up in the political and moral atmosphere of the time in which it is performed.

In 1944, after five years of terrible conflict, the character of Henry V represented an heroic, fair-minded leader, glamorous, responsible, and (most important) certain of victory. Lines in the play were cut that did not reflect this wholesome chivalric view of the piece. There were no doubts expressed in this version about the "righteousness" of Henry's campaign. Why should there be? This 1940s Henry was not really fighting the French but fighting Hitler, whose tyranny rendered the moral considerations simple. The look of the film celebrated a Camelot-like image of England, where knights were honorable and where war was noble and unmessy. The result was a sumptuous film that provided the world with the hero that it needed.

Nearly 50 years later, our world can look at the play in a quite different light. Our media's obsession with the private lives of the powerful and the famous make us far more interested in the personal and private side of Henry V. What makes this leader tick? Shakespeare certainly offers the study in his text. Henry was 27 at the time of Agincourt and the author dwells somewhat on this very young leader's growth to maturity through the play. In the nineties, we could allow his doubt and immaturity to be seen, also his brutality. In our film we were able to restore the scene where he learns of Scroop's betrayal and reacts with a surprising passion and violence. Also his threatening speech to the Governor of Harfleur offers a graphic reminder of the violent reality of medieval warfare at its most desperate.

We used close-ups extensively to get inside this medieval world. We illustrated the detail that Shakespeare offers -- the wind and rain of the battle; the close, smoky cascade rooms. The facts of their existence, the things that connect them to us. We asked for acting that remained true to the poetry where necessary, but sounded natural, real. We took license with historical detail to make the settings and costumes have a genuine essence of their time, but to feel also like real clothes, not costumes from a museum. All the developments in cinema over the last 50 years helped enormously in creating the look and the sound of the finished product so it could convey the immediacy and accessibility that this great humane debate about war deserved.

For above all we wanted to create a movie, not a literary museum. As my teacher did, we've used everything in our world that opens the door onto Shakespeare's and serves him up for our time. But although we've cut things (to make a two-hour not a four-hour movie), we haven't changed the lines or tried to simplify anything. Rather the opposite, we've tried to make as entertainingly complex as possible this extraordinary adventure story that has the power to move us, enrage us, inspire us, perplex us. You don't have to like the film or the character of Henry V, but I would urge you, like Shakespeare's Chorus, to enter the experience as you might with any other film and "on your imaginary forces work."

If you do find it stimulating, you have Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross to thank.

Teacher's Guide:
Viewing Strategies | Discussion and Activities | After-Viewing Activities
The Literary Context of Henry V | A Word from Kenneth Branagh
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