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Exeter and a herald return to report the total number of casualties. Ten thousand French soldiers are dead, but somehow the English have lost only twenty-nine men. Recognizing their extraordinary good luck, the Englishmen give praise to God. Henry orders his men to proceed to the captured village, but without any bragging.Read a translation of Act IV, scene viii →
The touching story of the death of the Duke of York, which Exeter relates to Henry at the beginning of Act IV, scene vi, presents a very romanticized view of death in battle. Both Exeter and Henry are deeply touched by the great love between York and his cousin Suffolk, as well as by York’s selfless courage and love for his king. The discrepancy between York and Suffolk’s devoted friendship and King Henry’s ill-fated friendships—with Falstaff, Scrope, and Bardolph, for instance—highlights again the pressure of monarchy, which prevents Henry from enjoying such an uncomplicated, loving friendship with anyone.
The problems inherent in loving Henry are raised again in the following scene, in the conversation between Fluellen and Gower. Fluellen’s comparison of King Henry to Alexander the Great is evidently meant to be very flattering, but it does not exactly come off that way. Fluellen begins by referring to “Alexander the Pig” (IV.vii.12–13). Of course, he means to say “Alexander the Big”—an error for “Alexander the Great,” as Gower promptly corrects him—but Fluellen’s Welsh accent turns the b into a p.
Moreover, the qualities Fluellen praises in Alexander do not necessarily seem flattering when applied to Henry. The most telling of these comes when Fluellen mentions that Alexander, “in his rages and his furies … did in his ales and his angers … kill his best friend Cleitus” (IV.vii.28–32). The parallel Fluellen has in mind is that Henry, at the same age (twenty-eight) Alexander was when he killed Cleitus, “turned away the fat knight with the great-belly doublet” (IV.vii.40). Gower supplies the knight’s name: Sir John Falstaff. This memory does not seem to diminish Henry in Fluellen’s eyes, but it may not sit as comfortably with the audience. Shakespeare continually reminds us that the nature of kingship is such that being a good king may keep one from being a likable man.
The discrepancy revealed in the numbers of the French and the English dead (10,000 versus twenty-nine) may seem almost impossible to believe. Nonetheless, these seem to be the real numbers for the historical battle of Agincourt—at least, they are the numbers recorded for the Battle of Agincourt in Shakespeare’s historical source, the Chronicles of Raphael Holinshed. One cause of the high French mortality rate is that the French army lost its organization, and many of the French soldiers broke and ran. In flight, they were easy targets and couldn’t fight back very well. It had rained very heavily prior to the battle, putting the French, with their heavy armor and horses, at a disadvantage. But probably the most important cause of the lopsided victory was the English use of the longbow, a weapon that had existed for hundreds of years but whose use had been forgotten on the continent until the English brought it to Agincourt. Shakespeare, however, does not attribute the outcome of the battle to tactics, weather, or technology, preferring to depict Henry’s victory as an act of God.
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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