Henry V

Henry V #

The Hal of Henry IV, ruled 1413 – 1422 dies of dysentery in France, aged 35.

Many scholars believe Henry V as the model of a good king. Several recent scholars such as Michael Bogdanov, have disobliging views, seeing in Shakespeare’s Prince Hal the archetype of the Machiavellian political animal. Others have a more balanced views. Shakespeare generally posits two opposing perspectives of his main characters.

As the oldest son of Henry IV, considered by many as a usurper of Richard II’s throne, Hal lost and regained his father’s favor. Well educated, he led a wild wasteful youth, and therefore was considered unworthy of the crown. To compensate he attempted to prove himself by taking his role seriously, believing he was guided by God’s hand.

Rulers and Power

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5i5mDO6ai_c&t=50s

He built trust by enforcing law and order protecting citizens from brigands. The taking of ‘prises’ (supplies commandeered for the king’s wars) caused disputes which often turned violent; and the purveyors who seized them were often accused of theft. Soldiers frequently turned to brigandage, forced to steal in order to feed themselves because of the difficulties and delays in organising prises. And campaigns ended with the discharge of large numbers of men who had got into the habit of living by plunder and ransom. Indeed, many were already felons, for it was Edward who first initiated the grand tradition of filling the ranks of English armies with criminals. In June 1294, pardons were offered to outlaws, fugitives and prisoners who were prepared to serve in wars.

Henry V came to the throne at the age of 26 and died nine years later, likely of dysentery. He was merely continuing the hundred years war with a fractured France over disputed territory and claims to duchies. France was engaged in civil wars between various factions with King Charles VI certifiable. Henry marries Catherine of Valois, on the promise of a large dowery, but it is assumed that the madness gene is passed on to their son, Henry VI.

Leadership #

The English political ideal was framed by Shakespeare, in his Henry V, and he is often considered the fore-runner of Winston Churchill. The English political ideal was framed by Shakespeare, in his Henry V, and incarnated in modern times in Winston Churchill.

Laurence Olivier’s 1944 wartime movie, Henry V, was used to motivate a war weary nation. The inspirational speeches resonated.

John F. Kennedy tried to emulate the more worthy traits of Henry V.

Shakespeare has FLUELLEN refer to Henry V as Alexander the Great, comparing Monmouth to Macedon.

Henry V has, as main attribute, the raising of the morale of his sickly and underfed troops on the eve of Agincourt – a battle in which they will be outnumbered five to one by the French. He provides inspired leadership, through sure and firm judgment, eloquence, and closeness to his men, from officers down to common soldiers.

Churchill would embody the same morale-rousing virtues in the dark days when he assumed office in 1940: making patriotic speeches to the people that displayed indomitable confidence, resolution and high principle in the face of supreme German military might.

Abraham Lincoln and Henry V also share a number of traits. They are both forbiddingly solitary – utterly alone in their thoughts and their judgments. And they are beholden to no one. The same was true of Churchill, who spent the 1930s as an isolated and frequently mocked voice warning about the rise of Hitler.

This solitariness relates to a second notable characteristic: a very broad life experience before assuming office. Lincoln had grown up in humble small-farm circumstances, moved from state to state, was forced to educate himself, served in the military, and finally became a small-town lawyer.

Henry, as Prince Hal, indulged in a notoriously misspent youth, frequenting taverns and brothels, mixing with city yokels, petty crooks, and general layabouts. Many, as a result, including the French, did not take his kingship seriously. His story scripts the archetype of a wild youth preparing the ground for the transformation into serious and wise adulthood. Both political leaders gained some of their common touch from their earlier days.

Third, both Lincoln and Henry V are magnificently eloquent. Their gift with words takes up the classical Athenian emphasis on rhetoric as a staple of effective politics.

The virtuoso facility with words here reflects high practical intelligence: thinking clearly and quickly in order to marshal short-term decision-making to fit with longer-term ends. There is the linked strength of being able to mount arguments before the wider populace that are as persuasive as they are inspiring. There is a difference between glowing and incisive eloquence and spin.

John Bell, not an historian, on the other hand says he learned a lot from Henry V as a leader:

• Be a team player, play low status and don’t pull rank.
• Lead by example.
• Listen to everyone in the team.
• Be an innovator; be bold, take risks, calculated risks.
• Be affable, good-natured.
• Be grateful.
• Be decisive, don’t prevaricate.
• Have a vision and a plan and know how to articulate them.
• Learn how to delegate; don’t be a one-man band.
• Be kind, be generous, be forgiving, be humble.
• Humility isn’t a passive or craven thing, it is just the understanding that every life has the same value.

Those last qualities have meant more to me the older I get, the more I see of life. And I note they are the qualities Shakespeare seems most to advocate in his final plays,

For a view of all monarchs see: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Kings-and-Queens-of-Britain-1856932

Dramatic Technique: #

Epic means different things; larger than life, transcendence. Oral tales of super heroes: Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, King Arthur…..There is Epic literature; epic tales and epic theatre – the same and yet different.

Chapman’s translation of The Iliad, surfaced in the 1590’s following the fall of Conastantinople in 1453, releasing the Greek classics for the West. The term Henriads apes Iliad.

Epic Poems are defined as long, narrative, on a serious subject written in a grand style, centred on a larger than life hero. Characteristics include a vast setting, superhuman and supernatural characters, elevated style written in an objective point of view to cultivate a cerebral response.

Conventions include an invocation to the muse, opening statement of theme, beginning in “medias res”, formal speeches, and uses of Epic similes. While classic drama is confined to one day, epic poems have unlimited time. – The Odyssey extends to ten years, The Iliad to about seven weeks of a ten year war.

Epic Drama is distancing - non identifying - disrupting. Plato preferred it to Action drama because it appealed to the mind.

Bertolt Brecht regarded conventional theatres of illusion as soft thinking; a narcissistic romanticism, - a desire to use the theatre for escapism. Brecht does not want us to suspend our disbelief. The principle of Einfuhlung (empathy) was regarded as theatrical seduction which clouded the minds of the audience to the true issues. He tries to divorce the audience from sentimental involvement or engagement and detach, distance or alienate us from the characters on stage. We are not meant to identify or empathise with them, rather stand back and judge them critically.

Julian Burnside quipped that he approached all literature with extreme caution as creative artists know how to cast a spell on their audiences, arresting our critical faculties.

Shakespeare plays on our detachments and emotions, but ususally avoids any sentimentalism.

He is acutely aware of how dramatic forms and conventions could express the order and coherence in the chronicle histories. He made clear distinctions between the Roman periods and the English ones.

This play is quite distinct in that he presents the scenes from three perspectives:

  • Court dramatic dialogue interspered with heroic actions including threatrical rhetoric pandering to patriotic pride.

  • Many scenes of unheroic common soldiers mocking the pomposity of their superiors, undermining our allegiance to authority and the king and more to loyalty to each other.

  • A prologue and Epilogue with five direct addresses by a Chorus, which appear to be the writer apologising his limitations.

A partial Script #

Like Greek masters, we start with a PROLOGUE invoking a muse:

Chorus

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire

Epic theatre requires that noble deeds invite wonder, inspiration and imitation. The chorus replaces the unsuitability of staging the breadth and sweep of epic battles and the epic stature of the hero. Epic praises heroes and denounces villainy. It does not deal in light and shade but in black and white.

“As Shakespeare teaches us, all heroes have flaws, some tragic, some conquered, and those we cast as villains can be complex.” Walter Isaacson

The most difficult interpretive skill is to discern whether a situation/character/saying, is being satirised or endorsed. Dectecting irony is also problematic.

It has become my considered contention that in the mid 1590’s Shakespeare experienced an epiphany where, after writing a highly propagandist play, Richard III, for the Tudor dynasty, he opted to write more balanced ambiguous and nuanced plays that raised questions without providing pat answers. While not antagonistic to dynastic succession, plays like Henry V, Richard II, Julius Caesar and others are more problematic and equivocal on good political leadership.

For those of us too obtuse to recognise his critical portrayals, in Henry V, the chorus provides ample cautionary clues not to get carried away by the rhetoric of the play.

Meta : On a basic level, meta meant recursive or self-referential—. To be meta was to flex your self-awareness for social currency, to demonstrate proficiency in the language of smirky dissociative irony that was the trendy cultural refuge from the massive information shitstorm

To the ancient Greeks, μετα- simply meant “after.” Aristotle, got to the period right after The Physics, he didn’t put too much thought into calling it Metaphysics.

He was basically calling it Physics: The Sequel. But Aristotle’s work in that period was arguably his most intense. Whereas The Physics summoned concepts like matter, nature, substance, and motion to describe the inner workings of the visible world, Metaphysics attempted to go beyond the visible.

Shakespeare frequently indulges in meta drama - especially in Hamlet

In Henry V, I believe Shakespeare uses the chorus to undermine the threatricality of the action with a more sober assessment of the actions. Sometimes a good leader has to do bad things.

I detect a self deprecating voice, creating excuses why the play fails to do justice to the heroic stature of King Hal, as he refers to the microcosm of a new theatre with the macrocosm of large scale expeditionary war.

But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France?

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
I.1.

In Act II, the Chorus undermines the pomp and pagentry of the war against France, questioning its rationality with these lines:

They sell the pasture now to buy the horse,
Following the mirror of all Christian kings,
With winged heels, as English Mercuries.

The Chorus keeps addressing us directly appealing us not to be offended:

Linger your patience on; and we’ll digest
The abuse of distance; force a play:
The sum is paid; the traitors are agreed;
The king is set from London; and the scene
Is now transported, gentles, to Southampton;
There is the playhouse now, there must you sit:
And thence to France shall we convey you safe,
And bring you back, charming the narrow seas
To give you gentle pass; for, if we may,
We’ll not offend one stomach with our play.

The Act III Chorus asks us to carefully interpret the action with our own minds:

Suppose the ambassador from the French comes back;
Tells Harry that the king doth offer him
Katharine his daughter, and with her, to dowry,
Some petty and unprofitable dukedoms.
The offer likes not: and the nimble gunner
With linstock now the devilish cannon touches,

Alarum, and chambers go off

And down goes all before them. Still be kind,
And eke out our performance with your mind.

Go figure!

The Act IV Chorus is the most explicit in urging we read with critical discrimmination and discernment, as to when he is serious and when satiric.

Yet sit and see,
Minding true things by what their mockeries be.

The clue gives the game away; this is a mock epic.

The Act V Chorus seeks forgiveness for the brevity of the abridged narrative. With self deprecation he apologises for not giving us the full picture.

I humbly pray them to admit the excuse
Of time, of numbers and due course of things,
Which cannot in their huge and proper life
Be here presented.

The interim, by remembering you ’tis past.
Then brook abridgment,

The EPILOGUE’s Chorus predicts the future loss of all gain achieved. Again he apologises for the inadequacy of his writing.

Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.
Small time, but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England: Fortune made his sword;
By which the world’s best garden be achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed:
Which oft our stage hath shown; and, for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.

Two contrasting battles are depicted: an aggresive assault on an innocent fortress of Harfleur, followed by a defensive ambush near the villiage of Agincourt.

Act I scene 1

As in many plays, the main character is introduced by subordinates talking about the main character.

The ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY, and the BISHOP OF ELY’s primary concern is that bills passed by the former parliament threatens their power and wealth:

CANTERBURY

If it pass against us,
We lose the better half of our possession:
For all the temporal lands which men devout
By testament have given to the church
Would they strip from us;

Then they marvel at Henry’s recent conversion.

CANTERBURY

The king is full of grace and fair regard.

ELY

And a true lover of the holy church.

CANTERBURY

The courses of his youth promised it not.
The breath no sooner left his father’s body,
But that his wildness, mortified in him,
Seem’d to die too; yea, at that very moment
Consideration, like an angel, came
And whipp’d the offending Adam out of him,
Leaving his body as a paradise,
To envelop and contain celestial spirits.

When they enter the King’s presence, his main concern is the legitimacy of his claim to the French throne.

HENRY wants to know:

Why the law Salique that they have in France
Or should, or should not, bar us in our claim:

Henry’s claim was based on his mother’s line, which is in dispute in France.

CANTERBURY

For in the book of Numbers is it writ,
When the man dies, let the inheritance
Descend unto the daughter

The Bishop’s not only sanction the campaign but are willing to contribute to the cost in the hope it will stymie the bill to confiscate their temporal property.

By feudal law Henry’s war can be justified. But Henry is the attacker on dubious grounds. Though he demands the Church leaders to speak the truth as to the legality of the war, but displays no curiosity in their interest in it. Later he thinks of it as a crusade and attributes the victory at Agincourt to God.

Fr. George Zabelka , an American Catholic priest blessed the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Putin used the Orthodox Church Priests to bless the tanks going into the Special Military Exercises in Ukraine.

In his messages to the King of France, he avers: ‘Tis no sinister nor no awkward claim’,

In Act IV, this exchange before the battle of Agincourt, raises the issue from the soldier’s viewpoint:

BATES

if we know we are the kings subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.

WILLIAMS

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of
subjection.

However, was this a righteous war fought by a virtuous King bound by honour? We have to wait to find out.

The England’s unity and security is threatened by conspiracies and attacks from the Scots. Henry must deal with them before he embarks to France.

WESTMORELAND

But there’s a saying very old and true,
‘If that you will France win,
Then with Scotland first begin:’
For once the eagle England being in prey,
To her unguarded nest the weasel Scot
Comes sneaking and so sucks her princely eggs,
Playing the mouse in absence of the cat,
To tear and havoc more than she can eat.

This, together with other put-down attacks on the French, Welsh, Irish, and Scots provides local colour appealing to paroachial pride.

KING HENRY V is set on his claim to the French throne:

Now are we well resolved; and, by God’s help,
And yours, the noble sinews of our power,
France being ours, we’ll bend it to our awe,
Or break it all to pieces: or there we’ll sit,
Ruling in large and ample empery
O’er France and all her almost kingly dukedoms,
Or lay these bones in an unworthy urn,
Tombless, with no remembrance over them:
Either our history shall with full mouth
Speak freely of our acts, or else our grave,
Like Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless mouth,
Not worshipp’d with a waxen epitaph.

KING HENRY V feels slighted by the gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin:

We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have march’d 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.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturb’d
With chaces.

Act II:

One could hardly be excused for taking the Chorus’s enthusiasm for war at face value:

Now all the youth of England are on fire,
And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies:
Now thrive the armourers, and honour’s thought
Reigns solely in the breast of every man:
They sell the pasture now to buy the horse,
Following the mirror of all Christian kings,
With winged heels, as English Mercuries.

The Chorus then exposes a conspiracy:

A nest of hollow bosoms, which he fills
With treacherous crowns; and three corrupted men,
One, Richard Earl of Cambridge, and the second,
Henry Lord Scroop of Masham, and the third,
Sir Thomas Grey, knight, of Northumberland,
Have, for the gilt of France,–O guilt indeed!
Confirm’d conspiracy with fearful France;

KING HENRY V demonstrates his kingly qualities when he pardons a drunkard, offensive to his person, but not his office:

Uncle of Exeter,
Enlarge the man committed yesterday,
That rail’d against our person: we consider
it was excess of wine that set him on;
And on his more advice we pardon him.

SCROOP, CAMBRIDGE and GREY, (nobles who accepted bribes and conspired with France against the English) advise the King not to be so lenient and advocate for:

That’s mercy, but too much security:
Let him be punish’d, sovereign, lest example
Breed, by his sufferance, more of such a kind.

KING HENRY V argues for lenience and mercy for trivial offences:

Alas, your too much love and care of me
Are heavy orisons ‘gainst this poor wretch!
If little faults, proceeding on distemper,
Shall not be wink’d at, how shall we stretch our eye
When capital crimes, chew’d, swallow’d and digested,
Appear before us? We’ll yet enlarge that man,
Though Cambridge, Scroop and Grey, in their dear care
And tender preservation of our person,
Would have him punished. And now to our French causes:
Who are the late commissioners?

When the three conspirators open their commissions, they discover a trick; instead of their orders, they see they are condemned to death for treasons against the state, they now appeal for mercy.

KING HENRY V

The mercy that was quick in us but late,
By your own counsel is suppress’d and kill’d:
You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy;
For your own reasons turn into your bosoms,
As dogs upon their masters,

But when the King condemns the unmasked conspirators he justifies it with:

KING HENRY V

God quit you in his mercy! Hear your sentence.
You have conspired against our royal person,
Join’d with an enemy proclaim’d and from his coffers
Received the golden earnest of our death;
Wherein you would have sold your king to slaughter,
His princes and his peers to servitude,
His subjects to oppression and contempt
And his whole kingdom into desolation.
Touching our person seek we no revenge;
But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you. Get you therefore hence,
Poor miserable wretches, to your death:

In Act II, sc. 3 we hear:

PISTOL

for Falstaff he is dead,
And we must yearn therefore.

Hostess gives a touching tribute to Falstaff:

Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s
bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made
a finer end and went away an it had been any
christom child;

Arthur’s/Abraham’s bosum, or possibly father’s from the Psalms. Why Shakespeare has eliminated Falstaff at this time has critics puzzled as he was his greatest drawcard. Some speculate, the actor playing his part had left the company. Others blame Queen Elizabeth. Shakepeare apparently wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor, featuring Falstaff secucing married women, for her in 1597.

BARDOLPH on why they should sign up for war:

Come, shall I make you two friends? We must to
France together: why the devil should we keep
knives to cut one another’s throats?

Harfleur #

ACT III, SCENE I. France. Before Harfleur.

In 1415 he arrives in France with 12,000 men. About 1500 were Men at Arms - knights, while the remainder were ordinary tradesmen, or mercenaries. The actual siege of Harfleur took over five weeks; due to syncopation; Shakespeare depicts it overnight.

Shakespeare is a consummate artist in the art of speech making. He is able to project his voice, like a ventriloquist, into a variety of voices.

A public speaker today might take note of the oratorical skills of Henry V, he knows how to read the state of play. Unlike most politicians, he knows more than one tune. He can urge his troops over the top with stirring jingoism:

Alarum. Enter KING HENRY, EXETER, BEDFORD, GLOUCESTER, and Soldiers, with scaling-ladders

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-rryLI4vpA&list=RDYH_QCbYmWww&start_radio=1

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOOZDO5KDv4&t=17s

‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead.’
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’
III. 1.

Homer, in The Iliad, spends most of Book 18, contrasting the life of peace with war. W.H. Auden adaptied that in his poem The Shield of Achilles:

https://nebo-lit.com/poetry/Auden-Wystan-Hugh/the-shield-of-achilles.html

In SCENE II. BARDOLPH mimics the above speech sardonically, giving us the soldiers’ point of view in stark contrast to the appeals to the aspirations of nobility, contrasted with survivial instincts of foot soldiers.

On, on, on, on, on! to the breach, to the breach!

NYM

Pray thee, corporal, stay: the knocks are too hot;
and, for mine own part, I have not a case of lives:
the humour of it is too hot, that is the very
plain-song of it.

Boy expresses their fears:

Would I were in an alehouse in London! I would give
all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.

Giving demotic voice to the foot soldiers punctures the high flown rhetoric of the Officers.

Following the prolonged five week siege of Harfleur, Henry V, attempts to retreat to Calais to regroup. He has lost more than half of his men, mostly to dysentery while the rest have low morale.

On the way to Calais, he is intercepted by a large French Army at Agincourt, which has become an iconic English battle.

Henry V’s speech to the townspeople of Harfleur: #

This is a arbitrary, peremptory and non-negotiable ultimatum giving the city two options. It is an example of the psychological warfare of intimidation and strategic coercion.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9Zhu23wDeY

KING HENRY V

How yet resolves the governor of the town?
This is the latest parle we will admit;
Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves;
Or like to men proud of destruction
Defy us to our worst: for, as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,
If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.
What is it then to me, if impious war,
Array’d in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do, with his smirch’d complexion, all fell feats
Enlink’d to waste and desolation?
What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
We may as bootless spend our vain command
Upon the enraged soldiers in their spoil
As send precepts to the leviathan
To come ashore. Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villany. If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? will you yield, and this avoid,
Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroy’d?

Mussolini, a Fascist, believed ’that war alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and put the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it.

However the above speech indicates that it brings our the brute savagery of mankind.

Agincourt #

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-yZNMWFqvM&t=4s

Homer cautioned about becoming seduced by the gilded tongue or the Dithyrambic - the nature of an impassioned oration.

Stephen Sewell demonstrates that the power of words can stir up emotions that over rule our rational capacity:

Both Britain and Germany were led by men who were artists - Churchill and Hitler - they were both painters and both great orators.

" In a sense they summoned each other up. “And at the very moment that Churchill was delivering his ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’, the Foreign Office was drawing up plans for capitulation and saying that Churchill’s speech was a load of old cobblers. And yet it was the magnificence of Churchill’s language - that magnificent rhetoric - that gave them a pathway through to winning the war.”

Hitler frequently addressed his nation with effective propaganda, until the tide turned against him in 1943, and he gave up.

Shakespeare is the nonpareil of speech writing. However as classical writers warn us. beware of the golden tongue. Rhetoric and oratory can be spell-binding. It is the deceit of words and sleight of hand which may not involve any deliberate falsehood, but inferentially manipulates our perceptions, what Wittgenstein calls the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language and eristic argument. All forms of persuasive language use tactics of perception management or cognitive interference to shed a favourable light on their perspectives.

Henry V’s speech is in a class of its own as an inspirational address to soldiers before a battle. He speaks to them in a homely informal way to allay their fears and reassure them that their actions will be the stuff of legend:

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.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Shakespeare is the consummate master or speech making by exploiting elementary rhetorical devices. He turns negative dispositions into positive ones.

“All things are ready, if your minds be so” indicates that all conflict/sport is really a mind game.

Rhetorical Techniques: #

The power of words to arouse spirits.

Emotive language: Words that appeal to the listeners’ emotions rather than to their powers of reason and logic. These are some-times called ‘loaded’ words as they contain a message that is subtly telling the listener what to think or believe.

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

By fighting with the King, the common soldier will be elevated or ennobled - become a gentleman.

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’

Tangible wounds (Antony shows the wounds of Caesar, while Coriolanus refuses to show his wounds).

Rhetorical questions: put by a speaker for effect, not to draw an answer, engaging the listener.

Balance: Rhythmically balanced phrases and sentences appeal to the ear. They can have a hypnotic effect, persuading listeners to accept what is being said having cumulative, convincing effect.

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

‘Crescendo’ effect: Climax Using a sentence that rhythmically and cumulatively builds up to a climax is dramatic and, therefore, convincing. This device is often used in the final sentence of an address to leave a lasting impression.

The ‘three effect: For some reason, three balanced phrases or three strong, emotive or alliterative words have a particularly dramatic impact, for example.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

Inverted phrases: Changing well know phrases by inversion or subversion can be extremely engaging.

I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
(rather than with me)

The English didn’t win; the French Lost #

Despite being outnumbered five to one, several factors aided his spectacular victory. Heavy rain during the night favored the English. The large stakes planted in front of his band of long bow archers protected them from French cavalry. Strategic false manoeuvres caught the French vulnerable. Some reports claim French soldiers had sustained food poisoning.

Why didn’t the French at the battle of Agincourt try to deal with the archers first? Didn’t they see the archers before the battle?

The man in charge was Boucicaut. He was a French knight and military leader. Renowned for his military skill and embodiment of chivalry, he was made a marshal of France.

Despite all that, he made some bad decisions. He wanted all the glory for the French knights and men at arms. So he never used the 1,500 crossbowmen and 4,000 longbowmen he had. Yes, the French had almost as many archers at the battle as the English.

Boucicaut probably though they could make it through the stakes and route the archers at Agincourt. He did not need nor wait for the main French force or the thousands of French longbowmen and crossbowmen in it. The English had no hidden reserves to worry about once they were through. They would break through, mop up what was left, and that would be that. He was almost right; the English had no hidden reserves, but they had plenty of mud.

The French made it to the stakes but the mud made it harder than it would have been without it, and kept them from getting though and mopping up. The French kept feeding men into the muddy meatgrinder. When they ran out of arrows the English archers went to work with other weapons. The English captured as many as they killed. Many of those killed were executed prisoners. As many as 6,000 -8000 French were taken prisoner, almost as many as in the entire English army. When it looked like the French might turn the battle, Henry V ordered the prisoners killed. From several hundred to a few thousand were killed. Probably the ones not worth as much as the others.

The English held on and the French never made it through the stakes. The English won the battle.

Boucicaut was captured, held for ransom, but died in captivity in Yorkshire six years later before his ransom could be raised and paid. Oops again.

Not to worry, the French learned their lesson. The French won every battle from 1429 - 1453. They won the Hundred Years War.

Response of soldiers #

In Act IV, this exchange before the battle of Agincourt, raises the issue from the soldier’s viewpoint:

BATES

if we know we are the kings subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.

WILLIAMS

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of
subjection.

PISTOL in Act V, aware that the battle is won, decides to tkae leave:

Old I do wax; and from my weary limbs
Honour is cudgelled. Well, bawd I’ll turn,
And something lean to cutpurse of quick hand.
To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal:

Historical evidence indicates that Henry executed many of its captured citizens, including women and children.

While Henry V fails to seize the French throne, he does manage to secure the hand of Princess Katherine.

After a triumphant return to England, Henry V returns to France to claim his trophy bride, Princess Katherine, after a rather clumsy wooing scene. They sign an agreement that the offspring of the marriage will inherit the throne of both France and Britain.

Shakespeare enjoys the triumph of a Roman leader and even uses the appelation “pebleian” for commoners, comparing Henry to Caesar:

Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride;
Giving full trophy, signal and ostent
Quite from himself to God. But now behold,
In the quick forge and working-house of thought,
How London doth pour out her citizens!
The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of the antique Rome,
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in:
As, by a lower but loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming, (Earl of Essex?)
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him! much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry. Now in London place him;

In the face of tremendous odds Henry beat the French at the Battle of Agincourt, losing just 400 of his own soldiers with more than 6,000 Frenchmen killed. He was recognised as the next King of France and married Katherine, the daughter of the lunatic French king. Henry died of dysentery, leaving his 10-month old son as King of England and France. The final Chorus sums up a rather unpromising future:

Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed:

Character of Henry V #

As one of England’s most heroic Kings, Henry V was lionised by many writers. Shakespeare appears to be depicting a more realistic and pedestrian portrait. Appearances are everything. His redemption from dissolute youth to Christian duty appears complete though he is compared to pagan heroes like Alexander the Great and Caesar. He appears fastidious in establishing legitimacy in his rights to attack France. He modestly attributes all successes to God. He mixes freely with those in high society and the common riff-raff soldiers, Nym, Pistol and Fluellen. The fact that his captains represent English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish interests give a sense of national unity, lacking under Henry IV.

The trial of the three treacherous nobles indicates that any breach of trust weakens the defences of society. Their seeiming appearance of loyalty (glistering semblances of piety;) cannot be trusted.

The FRENCH KING was considered insane, likely passing the gene through his daughter to the eventual King Henry VI.

Despite the overwhelming victory, Henry spent the rest of his life shoring up his claims through military engagements attempting to be crowned King of France as well. There were no majors victories, except for a few minor skirmishes including defeating Joan of Arc. Eventually the English lost most of their territory in France by 1460. They held Calais until 1558. Many people living at this time would still feel the loss deeply.

Shakespeare makes several derisive references to war. In Julius Caesar Antony refers to “Cry havoc! Let slip the dogs of war”

Henry’s taking offence at the slight of a gift of tennis balls is hardly a just cause for risking hundreds of lives.

As a Military Leader:

Henry is aware of the carnal wastage of war so is desperate to have the attack on France the sanction of the Church and God:

For God doth know how many now in health
Shall drop their blood in approbation
Of what your reverence shall incite us to.

Shakespeare can be slippery and subtle; his language shaded by irony - “honest Iago.”, “Brutus is an honourable man

Shakespeare’s attitude to war fails to align with his rhetoric; his various lines undermine the glamourisation of War:

Chorus comments on much of the action and is perhaps the most reliable rational voice in the entire play.

honour’s thought
Reigns solely in the breast of every man:
They sell the pasture now to buy the horse,
Following the mirror of all Christian kings,
With winged heels, as English Mercuries.

KING HENRY V’s ultimatum to the Mayor of Harfleur demonstrates the true reality of the barbarity of conquest:

How yet resolves the governor of the town?
This is the latest parle we will admit;
Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves;
Or like to men proud of destruction
Defy us to our worst: for, as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,
If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.
What is it then to me, if impious war,
Array’d in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do, with his smirch’d complexion, all fell feats
Enlink’d to waste and desolation?
What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
We may as bootless spend our vain command
Upon the enraged soldiers in their spoil
As send precepts to the leviathan
To come ashore. Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villany.
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards, And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls, Your naked infants spitted upon pikes, Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.

For how women are treated in war see:

https://nebo-lit.com/women/women-in-war.html#rape

Motifs of war #

While the play appears to be a clebration of the glamour of war and glorification of manly valour, there are sobering reminders of the pettiness, banality and brutality of this ancient art, especially in the words of the choruses:

Act I:

But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France?

Comparing the conflict to a cock fight, somewhat diminishes the honour.

Act II:

One could hardly be excused for taking the Chorus’s enthusiasm for war at face value:

Now all the youth of England are on fire,
And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies:
Now thrive the armourers, and honour’s thought
Reigns solely in the breast of every man:
They sell the pasture now to buy the horse,
Following the mirror of all Christian kings,
With winged heels, as English Mercuries.

Act III addresses the reader to evaluate what you see and what is actually happening:

Suppose that you have seen
The well-appointed king at Hampton pier
Embark his royalty; and his brave fleet
With silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning:
Play with your fancies, and in them behold
Upon the hempen tackle ship-boys climbing;
Hear the shrill whistle which doth order give
To sounds confused; behold the threaden sails,
Borne with the invisible and creeping wind,
Draw the huge bottoms through the furrow’d sea,
Breasting the lofty surge: O, do but think
You stand upon the ravage and behold
A city on the inconstant billows dancing;
For so appears this fleet majestical,
Holding due course to Harfleur.

Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy,
And leave your England, as dead midnight still,
Guarded with grandsires, babies and old women,
Either past or not arrived to pith and puissance; (essence)
For who is he, whose chin is but enrich’d
With one appearing hair, that will not follow
These cull’d and choice-drawn cavaliers to France?
Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege;

Suppose the ambassador from the French comes back;
Tells Harry that the king doth offer him
Katharine his daughter, and with her, to dowry,
Some petty and unprofitable dukedoms.
The offer likes not: and the nimble gunner
With linstock now the devilish cannon touches,

Alarum, and chambers go off

And down goes all before them. Still be kind,
And eke out our performance with your mind.

The playwright appears to be warning us not to accept the grandeur of the action, but to seriously reflect on what is actually happening.

Act IV:

Chorus

Now entertain conjecture of a time
When creeping murmur and the poring dark
Fills the wide vessel of the universe.
From camp to camp through the foul womb of night
The hum of either army stilly sounds,
That the fixed sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other’s watch:
Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
Each battle sees the other’s umber’d face;
Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
Piercing the night’s dull ear, and from the tents
The armourers, accomplishing the knights,
With busy hammers closing rivets up,
Give dreadful note of preparation:

Proud of their numbers and secure in soul,
The confident and over-lusty French
Do the low-rated English play at dice;
And chide the cripple tardy-gaited night
Who, like a foul and ugly witch, doth limp
So tediously away. The poor condemned English,
Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires
Sit patiently and inly ruminate
The morning’s danger, and their gesture sad
Investing lank-lean; cheeks and war-worn coats

Yet sit and see,
Minding true things by what their mockeries be.

Act V:

I humbly pray them to admit the excuse
Of time, of numbers and due course of things,
Which cannot in their huge and proper life
Be here presented. Now we bear the king
Toward Calais: grant him there; there seen,
Heave him away upon your winged thoughts
Athwart the sea. Behold, the English beach
Pales in the flood with men, with wives and boys,
Whose shouts and claps out-voice the deep mouth’d sea,
Which like a mighty whiffler ‘fore the king
Seems to prepare his way: so let him land,
And solemnly see him set on to London.
So swift a pace hath thought that even now
You may imagine him upon Blackheath;
Where that his lords desire him to have borne
His bruised helmet and his bended sword
Before him through the city: he forbids it,
Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride;
Giving full trophy, signal and ostent
Quite from himself to God. But now behold,
In the quick forge and working-house of thought,
How London doth pour out her citizens!
The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of the antique Rome,
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in:
As, by a lower but loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming, (Earl of Essex?)
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him! much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry. Now in London place him;

EPILOGUE

Chorus

Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.
Small time, but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England: Fortune made his sword;
By which the world’s best garden be achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed:
Which oft our stage hath shown; and, for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.

It appears all this effort and bloodshed was futile as ultimately " they lost France and made his England bleed: "

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Wilfred Owen

EXETER describing bloody corpse of The Duke of York seen “larding the plain” echoes Homer’s:

“sending many valiant souls of warriors down to Hades, leaving their bodies as spoil for dogs and carrion birds”

War, as Homer, Hitler and Heller show, simply turns men into corpses - carrion for scavengers, vultures and rats.

Here is Wilfred Owen’s take:

“Men dying as cattle” - the senseless slaughter as cannon fodder of modern war.

Shakespeare condemns the hypocrisy and wanton destruction of England’s needless invasion of a sovereign France, killing thousands who were merely defending their homeland with this epilogue:

“They lost France and made England bleed”.

Bloody-hunting slaughtermen’, #

  • sieges and ‘lechery’: what does Shakespeare tell us of war?

Published: April 25, 2022 The Conversation

Robert White Professor of English, The University of Western Australia

Only two days separate Anzac Day and Shakespeare’s (presumed) birthday and actual death-day. This proximity is coincidental. But amid a war in Ukraine, being reported in horrifyingly graphic detail from the point of view of the victims, and given Shakespeare is the world’s most-quoted, most-performed and most studied writer, it is reasonable to ask: what does he tell us of war?

In 26 of his 38 plays, Shakespeare includes a war in either foreground or background. In all these, anti-war invectives abound in epigrammatic phrases: “O, war thou son of hell” (Henry VI, part 2); “the hideous god of war”; “war and lechery confound all” (Troilus and Cressida); “dogged war bristle[s] his angry crest / And snarleth in the gentle eyes of peace” (King John).

Soldiers are regarded by civilians as cruelly taking “our goodly agèd men by th’beards” and indulging unbridled sexual violence in “Giving our holy virgins to the stain /Of contumelious, beastly, mad-brained war” (Timon of Athens).

For students and politicians used to reciting Henry V’s stirring “Once more unto the breach …” and “St Crispin’s Day” speeches before and after the battle of Agincourt, it is often assumed Shakespeare must support war and heroic values, epitomised in an “ideal king”.

However, the respective dramatic contexts undercut the King’s rhetoric. There are also strong arguments in the play that his invasion of France is illegal and unjustifiable, and he is guilty of war crimes, such as conscripting children, killing prisoners of war, and threatening a town with genocide. Soldiers are “bloody-hunting slaughtermen”. In “impious” war, bloody corpses are seen “larding the plain”.

Meanwhile, in other plays, some sympathetic and morally scrupulous characters condemn the tragic futility and violence of war.

Hamlet meditates over a piece of worthless, depopulated scorched earth “wasteland”, over which “the imminent deaths twenty thousand men’ … [will] go to their graves like beds”, fighting “even for an eggshell” “which is not tomb enough and continent /To hide the slain”.

The saintly, pacifist King Henry VI quotes Christ’s words while brooding on the high moral ground of a hill overlooking battle in “civil butchery”, intra-family, mafia-like vendettas pitting families against each other and resulting in mutual slaughter of fathers and sons.

In revenge plays such as Titus Andronicus and Hamlet, the cessation of one conflict is simply the prelude to the next in a succession ending only with the deaths of all antagonists, like today’s nightmare spectre of a sequence of retaliatory nuclear strikes.

An outspoken anti-war work #

Troilus and Cressida is widely acknowledged as among the most outspoken anti-war works of all time. It chronicles a squalid war waged over the forced abduction of a woman, who is regarded as little more than a symbolic trophy.

The prophetess Cassandra, speaking as much for future generations as her own, condemns the Trojan war, calling upon:

“Virgins and boys, mid-age and wrinkled old, /Soft infancy, that nothing canst but cry”, to weep in protest at the “mass of moan to come”.

The fate of the “heroic” Hector in the play is ignominiously humiliating:

He’s dead; and at the murderer’s horse’s tail, / In beastly sort, dragg’d through the shameful field … Hector is dead, There is no more to say.

So much for heroism.

Another brutally dismissive epitaph – “Let’s make the best of it” – is uttered over the corpse of Coriolanus, the most single-minded, professional soldier in Shakespeare’s canon. “Chief enemy to the people”, he is a sociopath and prey to violent outbursts of anger.

More machine than man, his role resembles the modern arms industry, owing allegiance to no national state and selling weapons indiscriminately to either side of conflicts.

Having turned against Rome and then against his new associates in arms, Coriolanus is finally hacked to death unceremoniously by Volscians baying “kill, kill, kill…”

He is remembered as one who,

“in this city [Rome] …
Hath widow’d and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury”.

Morally fallible military officers #

In these and other plays, Shakespeare places the blame for unjust and destructive wars squarely upon the heads of morally fallible military officers. For some reason, the playwright had a fascination for psychologically damaged, high-ranking soldiers, presenting them as case studies of “the military mind”.

Macbeth is introduced as a soldier credited with “unseaming .. from the nave to the chaps” and decapitating enemies. He rapidly descends into equally bloody regicide and embarks on a tyrannical reign, using hired killers to assassinate political rivals (Banquo) and slaughter innocent families of opponents (Lady Macduff and her children).

Othello’s default position as a general, even in marriage, is to trust his military ensign over his innocent wife, as a result turning his marriage into a misplaced battlefield of domestic violence and murder.

Henry V is predisposed to behavioural patterns of threatening, lying and blaming others for his own insecurities and faults. He is also a hopeless lover, curiously vowing to love Katherine “cruelly” and with the stated preference in love to “lay on like a butcher”. His hope that she will prove “a good soldier-breeder” comes as words spoken in the language of “plain soldier”. (Katherine’s silence suggests she does not express agreement!).

As a group these military officers are a sorry lot and (all but Henry) come to sorry ends, but the fundamental cause of their downfalls is the value system inherent in their training in a violent profession dedicated to war.

Respect for low-born soldiers #

However, Shakespeare respects and values low-born, often conscripted soldiers, who themselves have profound doubts about war. Their primary emotions are fear and concern for their families and future livelihoods.

Immediately following Henry’s “to the breach” speech, we have this exchange between low-ranking soldiers, first parodying the King’s rhetoric, then fearful, then homesick:

BARDOLPH

On, on, on, on, on! to the breach, to the breach!

A mocking parody of the King.

NYM

Pray thee, corporal, stay: the knocks are too hot;
and, for mine own part, I have not a case of lives …

BOY

Would I were in an alehouse in London. I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.

Later, Henry (in disguise, a kind of identity lie), is challenged by his own soldier, the dignified John Williams, who speaks from the heart for many a soldier over the ages. He questions leaders using the men to wage their own, personally motivated battles:

But if the cause be not good,
the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make
when all those legs, and arms and heads chopped off
in a battle shall join together at the latter day
and cry all ‘We died at such a place’,
some swearing, some crying for a surgeon,
some upon their wives left poor behind them,
some upon the debts they owe,
some upon their children rawly left.
I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle
for how can they charitably dispose of anything
when blood is their argument?

It is a quietly telling rebuke to the King who has led the invasion.

Maimed veterans #

Elizabethan drama, and its society, is littered with “Captain Stump” figures, army veterans who return physically maimed and traumatised. Williams recalls those audiences in the playhouse “pit” in Shakespeare’s Globe, potential conscripts to Elizabeth’s army, contemptuously dismissed by the recruiting officer as cattle fodder:

Tut, tut; good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better …

Shakespeare extends also to civilians his innate gift of empathy with victims, envisaging war from their point of view. Showing that the nature of war has barely changed over the centuries, except for the size and scale of lethal weaponry, are Shakespeare’s descriptions of siege warfare designed to shock and awe civilians into surrender, a strategy as much outlawed by medieval and early modern chivalric laws as the modern Geneva Conventions protecting civilians.

They are prescient of scenes in Kabul, Baghdad, Tripoli, Mariupol and too many other modern cities. There are several Shakespearean examples (see Edward III especially), but again Henry V is the main offender.

Calls to surrender #

In a lengthy ultimatum to the citizens of Harfleur in Normandy town, Henry offers them “mercy” if they surrender. He then itemises the consequences if they don’t, speaking not as a king but:

“as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts become me best”:
If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants
.

Washing his hands of responsibility he repeatedly asks,

What is it then to me?” if his soldiers rape women and kill children, and the city is “Enlinked to waste and desolation”.

As if morbidly fixated on licensing sexual violence, he repeats:

What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?

Henry promises defiance will lead to “The filthy and contagious clouds /Of heady murder, spoil and villainy”.

Yet again, the same threats come, still casting blame for violence on the citizens themselves:

Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters,
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds …

And all of these consequences, Henry, indifferent to imagined horrors or legal and moral constraints, outrageously warns, will be the fault of the helpless people of Harfleur!:

“What say you? will you yield, and this avoid? /Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed?”.

There surely can be no more effective condemnation of war’s atrocities, from the mouth of one prepared to authorise them. The speech is not just an unadorned indictment of a composite war leader and soldier, but of war itself.

Since Shakespeare’s plays are still internationally performed with ever-changing contemporary applications, their treatment of war can on stage make the phrase “lest we forget” more than an empty slogan, implicitly prompting the question, “when will we ever learn?”.

By Robert White Professor of English, The University of Western Australia from The Conversation

Henry’s redeeming quality is that once Harfleur submits to his assault, he spares the women, old men and citizens.