And tell the pleasant Prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore chargèd for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly from them—for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
. . .
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-hallowed cause.
This passage is part of Henry’s response to the messenger who delivers the crate of tennis balls that the Dauphin offers as a mocking reminder of Henry’s irresponsible and wayward youth. With an icy, menacing wrath, Henry turns the Dauphin’s jest on its head, threatening the messenger with a promise to treat the fields of France like a tennis court and play a game for the Dauphin’s father’s crown.
In his repeated insistence that the Dauphin’s jest will be responsible for the terrible carnage that he will bring to France (the Dauphin will “[m]ock mothers from their sons”), Henry indulges in an early instance of casting responsibility for his actions away from himself and onto his enemies. By claiming to come to France in the name of God and by telling the Dauphin that he, the Dauphin, is responsible for the consequences, Henry presents himself as an unappeasable, unstoppable force his enemies must submit to rather than struggle against. Henry may seem arrogant, but he makes himself appear humble by appealing to God rather than to his own power. This speech thus becomes an early blueprint for almost all of Henry’s future self-characterizations: he claims that his enemies’ wickedness is to blame for the violence brought by his own army, then depicts himself as an instrument of God whose desire to further God’s will leaves him no choice as to how to behave.
Then imitate the action of the tiger.
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage.
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect,
. . .
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 called fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeomen,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture. . . .
This passage is from Henry’s famous “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech, which ends with the battle cry, “God for Harry! England, and St. George!” Rallying his men to charge once more into the fray at the Battle of Harfleur (the “breach” refers to the hole in the town wall created by the bombardment of Henry’s cannons), Henry employs two separate strategies for psychological motivation, each of which uses its own language and rhetoric. First, Henry attempts to tap into a primal instinct toward violence within his men, hoping to rouse them into a killing frenzy. To this end, he compares the expressions he desires his men to wear to the features of an angry tiger. He describes in great detail the savage features of tigers, urging his men toward a mindless fury represented by snarling teeth and flared nostrils. The vivid imagery of Henry’s speech indicates his own experience with the savage passion of battle, as he commands his men to “[b]e copy now to men of grosser blood”—that is, to act as barbarians.
At the same time, however, Henry employs a second strategy whereby he inspires his men with a nationalistic patriotism, urging them to do honor to their country and prove that they are worthy of being called English. This sense of a shared national creed is somewhat more sophisticated than the urging to primal violence, and Henry turns away from the blunt physical description in the early part of his speech to a more complex rhetoric that combines historical reference (“so many Alexanders”), a sentimental appeal to family pride (“[d]ishonour not your mothers”), and reminders of birthplace (“you, good yeomen, / Whose limbs were made in England”). At the end of his speech, Henry attaches St. George, the patron saint of England, to his legendary battle cry, providing his men with a treasured and familiar symbol of the patriotic ideals he espouses in his rally cry.
‘Tis not the balm, the sceptre, and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farcèd title running fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world—
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave
Who with a body filled and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, crammed with distressful bread;
. . .
And but for ceremony such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Had the forehand and vantage of a king.
The slave, a member of the country’s peace,
Enjoys it, but in gross brain little wots
What watch the King keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.
This soliloquy by Henry is extremely important to the play because it gives us our only glimpse into Henry’s psyche that is not compromised by his need to appear kingly in front of others. Sitting alone in his camp, disguised as a commoner, Henry reveals the crushing responsibilities he feels on his shoulders, with every man of England laying his soul, debts, wives, children, and sin on the king’s head. Henry describes the lonely isolation of power, which is combined with the need to be eternally vigilant (“What infinite heartsease / Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?” [IV.i.218–219]). The only consolation Henry can see in being king lies in pomp and “ceremony”—Henry’s word for the opulent show of royalty, with its rich clothes, parades, traditions, and self-aggrandizement. To Henry, ceremony is essentially empty, no more than a “tide of pomp” beating on a shore. Henry says that he would trade all that ceremony for the peaceful sleep of the slave, who has no greater concerns in his head than his stomach and who has no idea “[w]hat watch the King keeps to maintain the peace.”
Henry’s speech is somewhat self-pitying; after all, it is doubtful that a slave would find his life as easy as Henry seems to think. But Henry’s willingness to envy a slave at all is rare for a monarch. Most kings are completely devoted to maintaining, solidifying, and increasing their power; for a king to abandon all his power would represent a complete failure of his intentions and desires. Even other kings who are conscious of the weight of responsibility they carry would shy away from such a statement. Henry V’s father, Henry IV, for instance, complains at length in 2 Henry IV about the pressures besetting “the head that wears a crown,” but it never occurs to him that his lot is less desirable than that of a slave (2 Henry IV, III.i.31).
Henry V’s statements show his remarkable ability to look beyond the ingrained and commonplace value judgments of his society, entertain an independent perspective, and place himself imaginatively in the shoes of his subjects. Henry also shows how little pleasure he takes in his own power. He is motivated by a sense of responsibility to his subjects, a responsibility that he takes very seriously and that requires him to place his own personal feelings a distant second. He is unable even to express his sorrow at his condition to anyone else; only when he is alone can he relax enough to allow himself to feel his own regret. If Henry is self-pitying in this speech, it is in part because there is no one else to pity him.
If we are marked to die, we are enough
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,
. . .
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 presently 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 quotation is from Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, the rallying oratory he delivers to the English army just before the Battle of Agincourt. Presumably, the power of this speech assists his soldiers in routing a French force that outnumbers them five to one. Henry’s opening lines, in which he explains why he does not wish for more men to fight with him, indicate his ability to give abstract moral concepts such as honor a tangibility and urgency that motivate his men far more powerfully than the repetition of platitudes about the glory of war would. Henry portrays the amount of honor to be won in the battle as a fixed amount that will be divided equally among all the victors; if there were more men present, then there would be less honor for each man to gain in victory. Henry’s claim to favor a small army is centered on his stated desire for himself and his men to win as much honor as possible in the battle.
Henry’s startling reversal of the normal conventions of battle make this idea effective. In most battles, the leader wishes for as large an army as possible in order to achieve an easier victory, but Henry claims to desire a small, outnumbered army to win a larger share of honor. In most battles, soldiers are compelled to fight and deserters are killed, but Henry backs up his claim to desire a small army by offering to let any man who does not desire to fight with him leave. Henry thus gives each of his soldiers the freedom to make the choice to fight with him; in doing so, he wins a measure of loyalty and devotion that he could not have commanded through force.
This speech is an example of Henry using his rhetorical skill to achieve the effect he needs—he does not really desire a small and outnumbered army, but he has a small and outnumbered army, and it is more effective to make his soldiers think that he is in the position he desires than to show them how difficult his position really is. Henry uses his ability to see things from unique perspectives to arrive at a surprising logic regarding honor and glory, then he uses his skill with words to make that logic stir his men to great deeds.
I think it is e’en Macedon where Alexander is porn. I tell you, captain, if you look in the maps of the world I warrant you sall find, in the comparisons between Macedon and Monmouth, that the situations, look you, is both alike. There is a river in Macedon, and there is also moreover a river at Monmouth. . . . If you mark Alexander’s life well, Harry of Monmouth’s life is come after it indifferent well. For there is figures in all things. Alexander, God knows, and you know, in his rages and his furies and his wraths and his cholers and his moods and his displeasures and his indignations, and also being a little intoxicates in his prains, did in his ales and his angers, look you, kill his best friend Cleitus —
Fluellen delivers this speech to Gower after Henry commands in the previous scene that the English soldiers kill all their French prisoners. Fluellen compares Henry to Alexander the Great, whom he initially calls “Alexander the Pig,” meaning “Alexander the Big” (IV.vii.10). Fluellen bases his comparison upon the ridiculous fact that there is a river in the town where Henry was born and a river in the town where Alexander was born.
In addition to being amusing, the speech is important because of its somewhat ominous ending. Fluellen notes that Alexander killed his best friend, a crime of which the audience might also accuse Henry, who indirectly or directly causes the deaths of Falstaff, Scrope, and Bardolph. Shakespeare thus uses Fluellen’s humor, in a moment of comic relief, to probe some of the moral anxiety lurking beneath his heroic portrait of Henry. Fluellen’s comparison of Henry to Alexander is both amusing and highly flattering to Henry. But, by unintentionally making the darker connection that both men killed friends, Fluellen emphasizes one of the play’s problem areas—namely, that running parallel to the qualities of leadership and justice in the minds of great kings is often a troubling capacity for violence and rage.
I just finished Henry V, the 19th Shakespeare play, in my quest to read all the Bard by his 450th birthday next year. If you're interested, visit my blog to find out what I thought of it and more on what I thought of Henry:
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