I’m currently in a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V (playing Fluellen and Exeter, yay!) and thoroughly enjoying it! This has also made me think a little more deeply about the play and its themes.
Shakespeare plays often have multiple themes that come up again and again throughout the text. For example, one of Hamlet’s themes is arguably surveillance. When Shakespeare repeats words or motifs, it probably means they’re important. (“except my life,” “honest Iago,” “ceremony”… you know what I’m talking about)
In Henry V, I think one of the themes is mockery.
Of course, the principal example of this is with the tennis balls. The Dauphin sends these to King Henry as a joke, mocking the fact that he used to be a “vain, giddy, shallow, humorous youth.” This mock is referenced many times, and in some ways is what starts off the action, or, (pardon the pun) sets the ball rolling:
“And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turn’d his balls to gun-stones; and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands;
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down….” (King Henry)
But it’s not just the tennis balls. There’s also the infamous leek scene, which is all about mocking—Pistol mocks Fluellen’s observance of Welsh traditions, and Fluellen hits him with a leek. Fluellen says it himself: “If you can mock a leek, you can eat a leek!” The word “mock” is also used a couple more times in the scene.
In a way, this also gives the leek scene more relevance (I am ALWAYS up for defending my favorite scene in Henry V). All scenes are important, right? so what does the leek scene do? As well as being humorous, it gives Pistol, Fluellen, and Gower some character development, and gives Fluellen a chance to get back at Pistol for his cultural insensitivity. But what if that isn’t the whole story—what if the leek scene is mirroring, albeit to a lesser degree, the tennis ball mock?
And it’s not only that. The word “mock” is used a total of 17 times in Henry V—compared to an average of about two to six times for most other plays. Even when the word is used in a context that has nothing to do with leeks or tennis balls, it’s interesting to note…
“By faith and honor,
Our madams mock at us, and plainly say
Our mettle is bred out…” (Dauphin)
“Yet sit and see,
Minding true things by what their mockeries be.” (Chorus)
“I pray thee, bear my former answer back:
Bid them achieve me and then sell my bones.
Good God! why should they mock poor fellows thus?” (King Henry)
“All is confounded, all!
Reproach and everlasting shame
Sits mocking in our plumes.” (Dauphin)
“Your majesty shall mock at me; I cannot speak your England.” (Katherine)
All in all… I think this is a pretty interesting finding, and probably not a coincidence!