If it were possible to grittily reboot Shakespeare, the result might look something like The King. Based on the Henriad — the series of plays including Richard II; Henry IV, Part One; Henry IV, Part Two; and Henry V — director David Michod's adaptation centers largely on the second half of the tetralogy, when a brooding Henry V (Timothée Chalamet) is reluctantly crowned king of England during a time of civil strife and threats from abroad (namely Robert Pattinson, who gives a gloriously WTF performance as the French Dauphin of Viennois).
Needless to say, this is not your local community theater's Henry V — The King is instead a muddy romp through some of Shakespeare's richest texts. But in search of expert enlightenment about some of the film's deviations from the Bard's version of the play, I turned to Paul Werstine, the co-editor of the Folger Shakespeare Library editions of Shakespeare's works and a professor of English at King's University College at Western University, Canada. The following is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Just to begin, I know you've worked as an editor on Henry V. I was really curious what that process was like.
The Henry V I edited with Barbara Mowat, I actually just revised that edition and I'm reading proof of it right now. It is part of series that is published by the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C. Folger has the biggest Shakespeare collection in the world; it's published by Simon & Schuster, and our edition is designed mainly for classroom use.
There are two early printed texts of Henry V: There's one text from 1600, which is a very short text, and there is a full text, which just about everybody reads, and was published in the first collected works of Shakespeare in 1623, in the book we call the First Folio. And we, of course, like all editors before us, picked the Folio text to edit. It's the much fuller, more complicated text. For example, it has choruses before each of the five acts, and it has an epilogue. And the 1600 text, the shorter text, doesn't have choruses. It just has what comes after them in each of the acts.
There are certain places in the Folio text, the 1623 text, where the sense breaks down, where clearly there's been an error introduced into the text, and occasionally we have to go back and we can find what we need in the 1600 printing. But for the most part, we have to go with the editorial tradition, and what previous editors have guessed to be the right word in the position. This is called "conjectural emendation." But on the whole, the 1623 text of Henry V is a good text; it doesn't require very much editorial intervention. So the biggest part of our job is to write notes for the text, which allows a modern reader to make sense out of what's being said.
It seems as if every generation has its own film version of Henry V — Laurence Olivier's Henry V in 1944, Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight in 1965, Kenneth Branagh's Henry V in 1989, and now David Michod's The King in 2019, just to name a handful. What is it about this play, or really cycle of plays, that loans itself to being reinterpreted on screen every 20 or 30 years or so?
Oh yes, I think it's a marvelously intriguing play and I can certainly see why people want to make movies out of it. It has the potential to be read in so many different ways. There was a critic named Norman Rabkin back in the 20th century who argued that Henry V was like a Rorschach blot: Some people who looked at it saw a rabbit, and some people who looked at it saw a duck. That is, some people who read the play see it as a play that celebrates warfare and conquest, and some people read it as a play which criticizes — savagely criticizes — both warfare and conquest. Yet they're reading the same play! It makes itself available to such broad interpretation.
I've seen the Olivier movie, and I've shown some of it in my classes, and I've seen the Branagh — I saw it when it came out and looked at it subsequently. It's fascinating to see how those directors have taken the text, and how they've cut it. Especially Olivier, there's hardly any of it left by the time he's finished! But clearly he's contributing to the English war effort in the second World War and glorifying Henry's conquest. The Branagh is a little bit more complicated, and has a little more of the play, so I'll be fascinated to see this one.
Some critics have described the character of Henry V as he's portrayed in this movie as "Emo Hal." Would it be fair to call Henry V "emo"? Was he really a pacifist and reluctant king?
I didn't quite hear what you said. What did they call him?
Do you know the term "emo?"
Emo? E-M-O? No, you're going to have to explain it to me, I'm afraid you're talking to someone who isn't very well connected to popular culture.
It means — it's like when teenagers are performatively sad. Like, they wear black clothing and listen to sad music.
Ah. Okay, I've got some idea now. And they've suggested Henry is like this? Wow, that's interesting. You know, when I think of Henry, especially as how Shakespeare portrays him in the fourth act of the play, when they're just on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, especially in Act IV, Scene 1, Henry is represented as very reflective, very thoughtful. He's withdrawn, he borrows the cloak of one of his commanders, Sir Thomas Erpingham, and he wraps himself up in this cloak and goes off by himself. He gets into some conversations with some soldiers and some of them don't go very well. And then he has these soliloquies, in which he talks about how difficult it is to be king.
He seems very — almost depressed — by this office he has, which puts endless obligation on him, keeps him awake through the night as he has to worry about everything. And then, in the next speech, he's very concerned about his family background. Because his father, of course, took the crown and throne away from Richard II and then Richard II was assassinated, and some people accused Henry V's father of having instigated the assassination. The guilt that is associated with his father weighs very heavily on Henry; he talks about how he has done everything he can to atone for the death of Richard II and he hopes that God does not call him for account during the battle for the guilt his family has.
So you can see Shakespeare puts into the play, especially in that particular place in the play, how someone might take that from it. But there are other places where Henry is much more extroverted, much more enthusiastic. That famous speech, "once more unto the breach," at the beginning of Act III — there he seems just a monster of aggression. There are many different takes.
Likewise, much ado has been made on the internet about actor Timothée Chalamet having to get a bowl cut for the role. Do you happen to know, would that hairstyle have been historically accurate for Hal?
You say this is a bowl cut? Huh. Wow. You mean it's as if someone put a bowl on the guy's head and they just cut the hair around?
Yeah, you know, like the Beatles?
Yeah, exactly, the Beatles cut. I don't associate that with Henry's period — I mean, the people who famously had haircuts like that were called "roundheads," and in the English Civil War, which started in 1643, the roundheads fought on the side of parliament against the nobility and the royalty. So I associate that kind of haircut with the 1640s, rather than the early 1400s, which is where we are with Henry. I'm not sure if anybody knows. We have some woodcuts, early drawings of Henry; actually, in the edition we did we had one of those reproduced.
Henry, you know, talks about himself not being a very good-looking man. When he's wooing his bride, at the very end of the play, he does talk about how he is not handsome at all and the one thing his bride can look forward to is that unlike most men, when they grow old they don't look as attractive as they did when they were young. And he tells his bride that she has nothing to worry about in that respect, that given the way he looks he can only get better as he gets older. He's kind of funny that way.
Henry — the actual historical figure — fought in his father's wars. One of the wounds that he suffered was actually important in the creation of the forceps, the medical instrument. He was shot with a barbed arrow: it went into his cheek, and of course because it was barbed it was very difficult for the surgeons to try to get the arrowhead out of his cheek without ripping his cheek to pieces. They invented this instrument they could use to stretch the edge of the wound and pick the arrowhead out. [Editor's note: After publication Werstine followed up to correct: "The instrument invented to remove the barb was not the forceps but a pair of tongs with a screw that fitted into the socket of the arrow head and permitted its removal."] You can imagine that somebody who suffered that kind of wound wouldn't be all that good looking.
The King is a rather serious adaptation, without much humor or levity. And when I think of Shakespeare, even his history plays, I associate him with that wicked wit. Is the Henriad funny, and would an adaptation lose something, in your opinion, without a sense of humor?
Yes, it is, the Henriad — we're talking about Richard II; Henry IV, Part One; Henry IV, Part Two; and Henry V — especially Henry IV, Part One, when Henry V is young Prince Hal, there's this comic character, Sir John Falstaff, who is one of the best talkers that Shakespeare ever created. He's wonderfully witty — he's totally corrupt at the same time — but he's wonderfully witty, and it's his wit, it's his humor, it's the grace with which he handles language, that attracts the young prince to him. It seems to everyone, including Henry V's father, that Falstaff is able to exercise far too much influence over Henry. There's a lot of comedy in those two plays, in the two Henry IV plays.
The interesting thing is, when people adapt them — when they squeeze them together, as it sounds like is being done here with The King — the parts that they tend to cut are the comic parts. This is something that happens very early in the history of the play. At the Folger Library, there's a manuscript that was done in the 1620s, probably for a production of the two Henry IV plays in a private residence, and the two plays are merged with each other. The parts that get cut are the comic parts; there's very little of the comedy left.
This happens very early in the reception of Shakespeare. It's interesting that the pattern should be repeated, 400 years later.
The part of Henry V I'm most familiar with is the St. Crispin's Day Speech, and in particular the "band of brothers" line. Only I was surprised the speech wasn't in the movie in any form! Does the speech have an outsized role in pop culture because of things like HBO's Band of Brothers, do you think, or, speaking as a Shakespeare scholar, does it strike you as a more glaring omission?
It's not there in the movie at all? Wow, you're right in thinking that it's perhaps — if not the most famous speech of the play, along with "once more unto the breach," one of the two most famous speeches in the play. I think its omission would be noticed, especially by Shakespeareans. We'd really wonder why isn't it there. It presents Henry in a rather attractive way, because it has him — even though he's the king and associated with his relatives in the aristocracy and others — he's making common cause with the ordinary solider in that speech. [Henry V talks] about how everyone who fights with him that day will become noble by virtue of fighting with him. It seems to be the kind of speech that makes Henry really attractive, because in it he seems to collapse class difference, which was so hugely important in Shakespeare's time.
The interesting thing is, after the battle is over and [Henry's] reading the list of casualties, he distinguishes by name all of those who have titles and rank, and he doesn't name any who don't. It's as if, after the battle is over, the whole class system has slammed back into place. But in the St. Crispin's Day Speech, he seems to erase class difference. I'd miss it, believe me.
I was hoping you could tell me a little more about Princess Catherine, who has a very minor part at the end of this film but seems like she was a very impressive, self-assured woman.
She appears twice in the Shakespeare play. She appears about the middle of the play, where she's represented trying to learn English; it's a very funny scene. But it's only briefly at the end of the movie when she appears, right?
Well, she was an impressive woman. Henry V died very young, and they had the one child, Henry VI, who turned out of course to lose everything in France that Henry V had won. But then she went on, and she married Owen Tudor, and it was the marriage between Queen Catherine and Owen Tudor that led to the House of Tudor — Henry VII, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I. So she stands at the head of this line of perhaps the most famous English monarchs. In history, she's a very consequential person. In the play, she really functions as Henry's love interest and it's much more limited.
Seeing as The King will likely be many people's first introduction to Shakespeare's Henry V, is there anything you'd hope they walked away from the movie knowing about the play or history?
I guess what I'd most love that they walked away with was a sense of the ambiguity, the complexity, of Henry V as Shakespeare creates him. Because he does inspire, from readers and playgoers, such hugely various responses. He is, on one side, this extremely cunning and self-interested and violent manipulator — there are all kinds of things about him that are thoroughly reprehensible — and on the other side he's represented as this charismatic leader who is able to inspire, from a people that he unifies, heroic deeds. It's possible to look at him in such different ways.
The King is in theaters Friday, and will be available to stream on Netflix starting Nov. 1.