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What are the functions of the Chorus in Shakespeare's Henry V?

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Introduction

What are the functions of the Chorus in Shakespeare's Henry V? In Shakespeare's Henry V, the chorus plays a prominent role. There are few other plays written by Shakespeare that include a chorus, however in no other play does the chorus have such an important role. The principal purpose of the chorus is that of story telling. The chorus acts as a guide for the audience, narrating parts that wouldn't fit into the action of the play. For example in the Act II Chorus, we are told about treason: 'The sum is paid, the traitors are agreed, the king is now set from London, and the scene is now transported, gentles, to Southampton.' As we can see, the chorus reviews what has happened in previous scenes and also tell us where we are going next. Kenneth Branagh made a film version of Shakespeare's Henry V in 1989. He made several alterations to the script and especially to parts of the chorus. I think he chose to do this for two main reasons. Firstly, to sustain levels of dramatic tension and interest, as modern audiences have a far lower attention span. Branagh was also able to make cuts because he had created the play through a modern medium, not all the explanation of the action was necessary, as it could be shown. This is effective for Branagh, as stage technology has developed since Shakespeare's time. Shakespeare would need to explain several scenes in the play in close detail, as they are near impossible to appear as realistic as Branagh is able to make them seem. Another function of the chorus is to arouse expectation. The chorus is used to influence the way the audience react to people and events. This is especially true in the way that Henry is presented as an epic hero. 'O for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention' This is an example of the traditional beginning of an epic poem, and is the first line of the play. ...read more.

Middle

As the English were victorious, there was a great sense of nationalism and Elizabeth I would be pleased that Shakespeare wrote this play as a celebration of a great former victory. There are direct compliments to Elizabeth I in Chorus V, she is described as 'Our gracious empress'. The chorus also helps to make the action considerably more vivid. Instead of merely telling us what has happened, and what is about to happen, it creates impressive pictures in our heads, helping to build up excitement and tension. Somewhere where this is particularly evident is when the English fleet sail from Southampton. There are the silken streamers fanning the sun, the ship boys climbing the 'hempen tackle' and the 'shrill whistle' of the master of a ship, and the 'huge bottom' moving slowly through the water, like a city dancing on the 'inconstant billows'. The chorus, as we can see, doesn't just tell us events; it recreates them in your imagination. As the action is told in such a captivating manner, the audience are far more excited when they see the next scene. However, sometimes in Shakespeare's Henry V, what you are led to expect will happen next, isn't actually what does happen. In the first chorus we are led to expect battle scenes. However, we first see a political discussion between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely. This scene isn't exactly what we anticipate, we have been told to expect a great war play. However, this is effective. Shakespeare manages to build up tension by delaying the action, as the audience have to wait longer to see this great king Henry that the chorus has described. There are some inconsistencies in the play: The second chorus tells us that 'Honour's thought reigns solely in the breast of every man'. However, we know this isn't true. The next scene after this chorus shows us the low lives who admit they are going to war to benefit themselves: 'For I shall sutler be unto the camp a profits will acrue'. ...read more.

Conclusion

It is clear therefore, that the chorus has many important functions. In fact it is essential to the play. The chorus adds to the drama of the play, but also it helps to explain and interpret the action. It tells is what has happened and also what will happen in the future. The chorus helps to make the audience feel far more involved in the play and I think that this is extremely important. Another very important function of Shakespeare's chorus is to apologise for the poor stagecraft and to encourage the audience to use their imaginations. Again, these features help the audience feel involved in the action, as they are being asked to think throughout the play 'Now entertain a conjecture of time' and 'Be here presented. Now we bear the king towards Calais' are just two examples of the chorus telling the audience to use their imaginations. This function isn't completely necessary in Branagh's film version of the play, but he chooses to include it so that his modern audience feels as involved in the action as Shakespeare's audience did. In fact, I think that making the audience feel involved in the action and encouraging them to use their imaginations are the most important functions of the chorus. I think that writing a part like that of the chorus into a play, which makes the audience concentrate on the action on stage, was a very good idea. It means that the audience get so much more out of the play, they haven't just sat and watched the action, they've been asked to recreate it in their minds, so will enjoy the whole experience a lot more. Shakespeare was an extremely clever writer, because he knew that he could make plays that could be seem boring to 'normal' people more interesting by just simply making them feel involved. Once he'd done this, it wouldn't matter to them about poor stagecraft, the play becomes epic to them, the exact intention Shakespeare had. Lucy Cartwright 1 ...read more.

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