When going through MEPS (inbound processing before shuffling off to boot camp) I had a paperback copy to keep handy through the various points of waiting. At some point or another I took my “address book,” (A scrap of paper with the addresses of those you’d care to write to. One of the few items I’d be able to have with me during my stay on the island) and scribbled St. Crispian’s Day on the back of it. The paperback I left on a stack of magazines for the next soul passing through. The speech I had memorized by the end of the second week.
Shakespeare isn’t quite the chosen poet of warriors (Kipling likely holds that particular title), but he’s up there. And if he’s been read and/or seen beyond what High School required, Henry V likely makes it near the top of the list.
If I had to take a guess as to why, I’d have to say that its because everyone whose found themselves fighting a war has a counterpart in Henry V’s world. International power brokers who play chess on the world like Henry and Charles. Stoic professional ass-kickers like Exeter. Bearing-impaired shitbags like Bardolph, joined up for loot, adventure, or lack of anything else to do. Wide-eyed boots like The Boy, with no clue what they’re getting into but knowing it’s the most exciting thing they’ve seen in their young lives and not about to let it pass them by.
And then there’s Mistress Quickly. The bit that always hit me hard about Branagh’s film version has dick to do with Hartfleur or Agincourt. It’s watching Quickly seeing loved ones walking out the door, knowing there’s not a damn thing she can do about it except make sure the tears don’t fall until they’re out of earshot.
There’s someone in Henry V that resonates with anyone that’s fought in a war, or had a loved one do so.
But while Henry V resonates with fighting a war, it’s Troilus and Cressida that resonates with living in a war.
I’d only occasionally thought of Troilus before being cast in a production earlier this year. I’d known the gist of it (Romeo & Juliet-ish set against the background of The Iliad) but hadn’t gotten into the story much. The big exception being using Tersities’ “reason you all suck” speech as one of the Machine Gun Shakespeare pieces.
Where Henry’s war has a progression from England to Hartfleur to Agincourt and beyond, Troilus’ war is stuck in Troy, and has been for years. Boredom and bullshit lead to bad decisions all round. It’s one of the most cynical works in the Shakespeare canon. And to an OIF/OEF veteran’s eyes, it looks like Shakespeare embracing the suck.
It’s got moronic higher ups (the entire Greek contigent), the one guy with a clue being unable to get anything useful done (Ulysses), the one guy incapable of shutting the fuck up (Ulysses again), Coming up with conterproductive bullshit as a distraction from all the suck (the exhibition fight), professional shitbags (Thersites), good people dropping their packs when the bullshit becomes too much (Achilles), and a really hideous toll taken on relationships (the titular couple in particular, but it also affects Hector/Andromache and Achilles/Patroclus to an extent).
Even tiny plot points like stumbling around a camp in the dark trying to find Achilles’ tent reminded me of transition quonoset huts in places like Al Taq and Bagram, which all look the same and make trying to stumble back to your own cot after nightfall a mild annoyance.
By the end of the play, nothing substantial has been accomplished but a body count. The suck carries on, as does the war.
For the OIF/OEF vets that read or see both, I personally think Henry V resonates more like the war we fought, while Troilus feels like the one we had to live through.