The Bard on (tennis) balls

With “The Hollow Crown” – a film series based on Shakespeare’s “Richard II” and Henriad plays (“Henry IV,” parts 1 and 2, “Henry V”) coming to PBS this fall – and with August WAG’s salute to the US Open hitting the street now, we thought you’d enjoy a little bit about the Bard on (tennis) balls.

Tennis has its origins in the medieval period. The word has the same root as tenor (from the French, tenir, “to hold.”) In medieval polyphonic music, the tenor, or highest voice, held the melody line. (There was no soprano or female alto as women did not sing, at least not publicly.) By the Renaissance, tennis was a well-established sport among the royals. Henry VIII – father of Will’s great patron, Elizabeth I – was a great fan. So it’s not surprising that tennis finds its way into some of the Bard’s best plays, as Marjorie Garber notes in her brilliantly entertaining “Shakespeare After All” (Pantheon Books). In “Much Ado About Nothing,” we’re told that the shavings from Benedick’s beard have furnished the stuffing of tennis balls (apparently a custom of the day). And in “Henry IV, part 2,” the future Henry V, called here Prince Hal, uses tennis to make a joke about his pal Poins.

But nowhere in Shakespeare is tennis a more chilling metaphor than in an early scene in “Henry V,” in which the contemptuous French Dauphin sends Harry, as Henry V is now called – yes, yes, dear readers, too many nicknames – a case of tennis balls as a commentary on Harry’s former life as a playboy. What the Dauphin doesn’t understand, but Shakespeare certainly does, is that Harry is about to become the English Alexander the Great. He’s a true Plantagenet, descended from Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, Edward I and III and Edward, the Black Prince – a young lion, yes, but still a lion out of many lions and lionesses.

At any rate, the hapless Dauphin has served and here’s Harry’s return, via Shakespeare’s imagination, to the French ambassador for the crosscourt winner:

“We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us.
“His presence and your pains we thank you for.
When we have matched our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.”

Henry V played out that “match” on a battlefield that has passed appropriately into legend as Agincourt.

For more on tennis, read WAG’s August “S’wellness” issue. For more on “The Hollow Crown,” visit pbs.org and look for a review of the series in an upcoming WAG weekly.

— Georgette Gouveia

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