Henry V’s Ugliness

In 1403, during the Battle of Shrewsbury, Prince Henry was struck on the left side of his nose with an arrow that burrowed six inches into his skull. The arrowhead broke off, remained lodged in the bone of Henry’s skull, and had to be extracted in a remarkable moment of pre-modern maxilla-facial surgery. In the English chronicles, the wound from that arrow became the sign of Henry’s maturation from capricious youth to national hero: John Speed, for example, called it the “marke of his manhood.” As the chronicles relate, a severely wounded Prince Henry refused to leave the battlefield, lest his retreat strike fear in his soldier’s hearts; he fought on where the battle was hottest, an exchange Shakespeare staged at the end of 1 Henry IV, although Shakespeare didn’t mention the arrow specifically. In the case of war wounds, physical abnormality is a sign not of vice (as it is with, say, the deformity of a Richard III or the obesity of a Falstaff) but of virtue (as with the wounds of Coriolanus), an aesthetic of stigma that points back ultimately to the stigmata of Christ, the hideous body signifying the hero who wars against evil to his own suffering.

Shakespeare made even more hay of Henry’s face at the end of Henry V, when the king woos Katherine, apologizing for his ugliness, blaming his father, whose warlike thoughts in the moment of Henry’s conception, he says, resulted in a warlike face in the child conceived. Here Shakespeare is satirizing the notion – originally argued by Empedocles, but also at work in the Biblical story (recounted by Shylock) of Jacob’s manipulation of Laban’s flock – that the mental images of parents during conception (usually the mother, but in Henry’s case the father) can be imprinted on a deformed, monstrous child. While Shakespeare satirized the outmoded figural, magical, spiritual model of stigma on the one hand, he also offered a new theory to take its place on the other, one that draws upon the “devouring Time” of the Sonnets. Henry tells Kate that his ugliness is only ugliness in the context of the traditional beauty associated with youth, that his ugliness will not be ugliness when seen in the context of the decay of old age. In other words, Shakespeare presented a theory of stigma that is fundamentally circumstantial, one showing that stigma acquires meaning only in relation to a situation, which is ultimately the keynote of Shakespeare’s career with stigma.

Sorry but #NOT SORRY :o)

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