Prince Hal also uses language as a bridge to people — in a conscious and gifted way. Even the modern ear, more than 400 years after the play was written, can hear Prince Hal varying his tone to connect with his audiences; yet each of these different styles conveys power and action. “He has all these different registers,” says Alison Bomber, the RSC voice and text coach. “He can talk to the soldiers in their register. He can talk to the churchmen. He can produce a trumpet clangor of sound, the sense of space in the vowels giving him true authority; then in the battle there are clangy, jangly sounds.” At one point, Prince Hal fools Falstaff by acting the part of a server of mead at Eastcheap Tavern. Yet when he might lose his own life in battle, he speaks in a classically regal tone that represents pure power and acceptance of fate. When people recall Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of Henry V, they are usually thinking of this speech.
I asked Boyd if he recognized any Hals among the well-known leaders of our time. “Nelson Mandela,” he said, “because of the switch from opposition to rule. He kept himself intact during the transition. Gordon Brown [at the time of our conversation, the U.K. prime minister for only two months] has certain Hal-like qualities that he hasn’t lost. I don’t think that he will lose the common touch.”
But although Henry V may share the eloquence of a Mandela, he is no Mandela. He went to war with a false claim to the throne of France, in a hasty, angry reaction to a nasty encounter with a French diplomat. He used empty rhetoric — most famously, referring to his troops as a “band of brothers” to stoke them up for a fight in which many would die. Poet William Butler Yeats, who went to Stratford to study the history plays while preparing for a stint as senator of the Irish Free State, commented that Shakespeare could not have admired Hal. The prince is too calculating; to admire him would take the soul of a magistrate, said Yeats.
Many leaders, struggling to reconcile conflicting priorities — like the need to pursue quality while making the numbers — will find Hal’s pragmatic perseverance particularly relevant. How to act the part? According to Boyd, “Throw yourself fully into every part of the journey, especially if it conflicts with the reason for the journey. Embrace paradox. Self-doubt is the single most defining characteristic of Shakespeare’s great leaders.”
The Sacrifice of Richard II
Leaders, in other words, express power and confidence not by suppressing or banishing doubt, but by incorporating it into their resolve. Boyd likes to see the actors who are playing kings to occasionally be uncomfortable in their bodies. He teaches them to keep their heads low at first. “Let the audience see that here is a burden that pulls you down.” But a credible leader must then become vital and powerful, and this transition must not feel forced. In the end, says Boyd, “You know why you are at the top of the hierarchy and you can look someone in the eye. That is a king being comfortable in his body — dramatizing the range of being human.”
The most charismatic sovereigns can accept even the worst about themselves. Boyd often builds his actors’ confidence by having them think about times they have behaved badly. “You have to dramatize moments of blazing incompetence,” he said. “Audiences are always behind the fattest, baldest, shortest actor, but the temptation is to let vanity make you be ashamed. What I try to do as director is to break down those embarrassments.” In a rehearsal, Boyd might ask an actor to do something obscene or to draw attention to someone else in a rude or deliberately demeaning way, just to bring the most shameful parts of themselves out into the light for a moment.