At the Vote Leave HQ on the night of the Brexit vote, Daniel Hannan leapt on to a table at 4.30am to quote from Shakespeare. There was little surprise which passage he chose: Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech given on the eve of Agincourt. “Gentlemen in England now a-bed/Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,” Hannan roared, swapping out the names of King Hal’s “happy few” – “Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot” – and replacing them with those of Brexit campaigners.
When a certain kind of male English “patriot” puffs out his chest it is invariably “cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!” he has in mind. You imagine, in this regard, that Hannan and his “band of brothers” might want to steer clear of the Globe theatre later this week – on the eve of Remembrance Day – when a new production of Shakespeare’s martial play, directed by Holly Race Roughan, will open.
Roughan was quoted in an interview with the Stage last week, offering a somewhat less full-throated endorsement of the drama’s message: “When I read Henry V,” she said, “I thought, ‘Fucking hell, this is the pinnacle of English mythologising and white supremacy, and toxic masculinity.’ I felt like I’d discovered the dirty, murky roots of English nationalism. I wanted to pull the play out of the ground and look at those roots and start asking questions about them. What is Englishness? What social and political purpose does it serve?”
That quote prompted plenty of virtual pearl-clutching from the “is nothing sacred?” crew on Twitter; a Telegraph editorial had a dig at “Woke King Harry”. But Roughan’s questions, in relation to the play, were nothing new. Henry V has always been a barometer of English patriotism – offering scope for flag-waving fervour and the examination of “dirty, murky mythologising” in equal measure. As Shakespeare knew better than any Englishman who ever lived, nothing divides us like the history we choose to remember.
Henry V is all about those ambiguities – the ways that national feeling can be roused to cynical and bloody ends; the St Crispin’s speech was both the promise of Jerusalem and lies on the side of a bus. The Globe production advertises itself in these terms: “Civil unrest, trouble with Europe, the death of a monarch… Experience Shakespeare’s unnervingly relevant Henry V in a production that offers a different perspective on England’s hero.” In fact, in 500 years, the play has never not looked “unnervingly relevant” and “England’s hero” always had plenty of light and shade written in.
Sometimes, the play has been employed as a straightforward recruitment sergeant. In 1789, when the establishment feared insurrection would spread across the Channel, John Philip Kemble starred in a production high on pageantry to stoke anti-French sentiment. In 1942, Laurence Olivier, wearing his Fleet Air Arm uniform, delivered the St Crispin’s Day speech on the BBC to boost morale; Churchill pressed him to make his famous film version and borrowed a few cadences – “never in the field of human conflict” – for his own broadcasts.
Just as often, the play has been a vehicle for anti-imperial sentiment. Watching a production during the Boer war, George Bernard Shaw criticised Shakespeare for “thrusting such a jingo hero as his Harry V down our throats”, but 25 years later, after Passchendaele and Gallipoli, Stratford audiences were given a sombre production reflecting the idea, as one critic remarked, that postwar audiences “do not admire conquerors” and were likely to be appalled by the “Bismarckian brutalities” of the eponymous king.
In more recent times, those sentiments have multiplied. Michael Bogdanov’s 1986 production – at the height of Thatcherite jingoism – had an English army march across the stage under the banner “Fuck the Frogs” and chanting the football hooligans’ refrain “’ere we go, ’ere we go, ’ere we go”. Nicholas Hytner’s 2003 staging at the National Theatre coincided with the war in Iraq and highlighted the dubious legality of Henry’s French invasion. Hytner’s programme notes revealed that the US Defense Department had made the play required reading for American soldiers preparing for shock and awe. Adrian Lester played the young king as a smooth spin doctor; the St Crispin’s speech became the ultimate dodgy dossier.
Even the greatest critics have always tended to see what they wanted in the play. For the radical William Hazlitt, it was a portrait of an “amiable monster”, high on “the pleasure of destroying thousands of other lives”. For the conservative Thomas Carlyle, it was proof positive that Shakespeare was a nationalist: “A true English heart breathes, calm and strong, through the whole business…”
“What is Englishness?” Holly Race Roughan asks. At its best, I’d argue, it is the ability to hold in mind all of that complex history and, in Remembrance week, to see it for what it is: both finest hours and lions led by donkeys; both the sacrifice of unknown soldiers and toxic masculinity; or as Shakespeare’s play never stops telling us, lest we forget: both stirring national poetry and the “war-worn coats” of “so many horrid ghosts”.
• Tim Adams is an Observer columnist