Allow me, if you would, to briefly expound on heroes. Yes, I do have a soft spot for the anti-hero and for the bad boys, but a lot has been said about them since they were invented as a character type in fiction.
So let’s talk about heroes. Read more…I love ’em. Most people do… but I think the Bard said it best:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once.”
Does that mean the valiant, the gallant, and those who love honor never fear? No, certainly not something so foolish. Fear can be a very good thing; fear can spark you to action and quicken the blood. Many quotes have been tweeted, many sentiments have been expressed, and goodness knows how many books have been written on this subject and the variants thereof.
But what I really love about that Shakespeare quote, about the many words he used to inspire audiences with such ideas, is that he doesn’t white-wash it. He doesn’t say “the valiant” never fear, never die… he simply paints a picture in perfect iambic pentameter of a coward who constantly bend the knee, who avoid the dangerous areas of life, out of fear of death… and the other side. The valiant, the ones who know where they’re going when they die, who face their lives without picking over mundane details. They live fully and beautifully, and when the end arrives, death is greeted like an old friend.
Yes, that was a Harry Potter reference. *tips hat*
Personally, I am often drawn to fictional characters with a deficit in the natural fear of death. I love daring. I love gallantry. I love the types who cauterize their own wounds, who risk their lives to save others, who act with thoughtless bravery. Give me a hero, please; I’ll take him any day of the week.
But don’t make him perfect. Strong characters overcome, so give my hero things to trip him up. I want to fear he will fail, just do me one little favor: only make him taste of death but once.
I was not a Shakespeare nut until I took a mandatory Shakespeare course for my BA in Literature and Psychology. The course was hardly the best one I took, and there was very little in the way of built-in commentary or explanation. It was just me and the Bard. So I dug a little deeper, found free online lectures to supplement my study material, and watched clips of the plays, or films made from the plays – for Shakespeare is often best understood by ear rather than by eye.
Even then, I wasn’t a huge fan until I came across “Henry V”. By then I had studied “Othello,” “Hamlet,” and “King Lear”. Fortunately, they preceded “Henry V” with “Henry IV,” and I had the background on Hal, his friends, and how he came to be king. Knowing this and being in the mode of the language, “Henry V” hit me like a freight train.
The language, my goodness! The language!
“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;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn.
But this lies all within the will of God,
To whom I do appeal; and in whose name
Tell you the Dauphin I am coming on,
To venge me as I may and to put forth
My rightful hand in a well-hallow’d cause.
So get you hence in peace; and tell the Dauphin
His jest will savour but of shallow wit,
When thousands weep more than did laugh at it.”- Henry V
“Awake remembrance of these valiant dead
And with your puissant arm renew their feats:
You are their heir; you sit upon their throne;
The blood and courage that renowned them
Runs in your veins…” – Henry V
“O God of battles! steel my soldiers’ hearts;
Possess them not with fear; take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if the opposed numbers
Pluck their hearts from them. Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day…”- Henry V
“If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.”- Henry V
The character of Henry is a stunning, stunning bit of work. What always rocked me in my boots when it came to Shakespeare was that he changed the game with his characters. They were so good, so complicated, that… well… nobody’s really managed to top it since. I mean, throw Hamlet into West Wing and he can stand on his own two feet. Write Portia into Scandal and you’ve got a character who can go toe-to-toe with most of the others. HE WROTE THEM FOUR HUNDRED YEARS AGO, PEOPLE.
“Henry V” was supposed to be a bit of a puff piece, I think. It was how the English trounced the French at Agincourt. Instead of writing a straightforward play about British pride, Shakespeare made Henry wildly flawed. He executes prisoners of war. He fears for his friends. He doubts himself. In that second-to-last quote I put above, Henry is on his knees before sunup, begging God to spare his campaign and his men from the sins of his father. He went to war on a somewhat flimsy pretense. Shakespeare could have written him as this paradigm of English virtue, but instead, he made him flawed. And it just works.
He is a soldier, yes, and charges into war gallantly… but the moment he truly won my heart wasn’t with the St. Crispian speech (arguably some of Shakespeare’s most famous words). It was when he set aside his warlike trappings, and, instead of just taking the wife he won with his war… he wooed her.
One day he’s charging into battle with a, “Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'” and the next he’s holding the hand of a French princess, saying, “A
good leg will fall; a straight back will stoop; a
black beard will turn white; a curled pate will grow
bald; a fair face will wither; a full eye will wax
hollow: but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the
moon; or, rather, the sun, and not the moon; for it
shines bright and never changes, but keeps his
course truly. If thou would have such a one, take
me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier,
take a king. And what sayest thou then to my love?
speak, my fair, and fairly, I pray thee.”
“Come, your answer in broken music; for thy voice is
music and thy English broken; therefore, queen of
all, Katharine, break thy mind to me in broken
English; wilt thou have me?”
I love strong characters. I don’t care if they are men, women, or children, but give them words to inspire me and strength to overcome their trials, and you will win my heart as I read your book. They don’t have to wear spandex or have a fancy mask, they don’t have to be saints or martyrs. Please, make them complicated. Please, make them flawed. Just don’t forget to keep them heroes in a world that desperately needs to be reminded to be good.
Give me a hero, please. Just don’t make him perfect. Keep him human, and for a few minutes let me believe that I can be a hero, too.
And in case you were under the misconception that the best bits of Shakespeare are solely the possession of “Henry V”… brevity being the soul of wit, let me leave you with a gloriously concise moment of profundity:
“And make death proud to take us.” – Anthony and Cleopatra