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On the battlefield, a new set of important characters enters the play: the foreign soldiers fighting under King Henry’s rule, men who come from the countries that border England and are under English control. Captain Fluellen is from Wales (his name is an Anglicized spelling of the still-common Welsh name Llewellyn), Captain Jamy is from Scotland, and Captain MacMorris is from Ireland. They all speak with distinctive accents, and their personality traits and linguistic idiosyncrasies reflect Renaissance English ideas about the national character of these other countries. Captain MacMorris is hot-tempered, for example, and Captain Fluellen is thoughtful and didactic. Shakespeare uses this extraordinary linguistic and cultural diversity to present a broad cross section of the British people in the throes of war.
King Henry urges the surrender of Harfleur with the same complex, morally shaky rhetoric that we see in earlier scenes. He plans—or at least claims to plan, in order to intimidate the governor—to authorize rape, murder, and total destruction unless the governor surrenders the city. The images Henry uses are vivid: he tells the governor to imagine “[t]he blind and bloody soldier with foul hand / Defil[ing] the locks of your still-shrieking daughters” (III.iii.111–112) and “[y]our naked infants spitted upon pikes” (III.iii.115). These images, in addition to being highly disturbing, are troublesome in that they force us to question how honorable or decent Henry is if he is willing to harm innocents so cruelly. Furthermore, Henry’s speech once again deflects responsibility for the impending carnage from himself. He says that if the town doesn’t surrender instantly, he will lose control of his soldiers, and it will be Harfleur’s own fault for subjecting itself to destruction and rape. This idea seems to be mere rhetoric, however, as it is Henry who has urged his men to become killing machines, and Henry who has the power to sway them from acting savagely.
Shortly after the introduction of the dialects of Fluellen, MacMorris, and Jamy, Shakespeare adds another level to his increasingly complicated linguistic panoramaby rendering Act III, scene iv almost entirely in French. The scene is essentially a comic one, a language lesson mangled by the deficiency of the teacher, Alice. A further source of humor is Catherine’s perception of apparent obscenities in basic English words. Catherine is scandalized by the similarity of “foot” to the French word “foutre,” meaning “to fuck.” Similarly, “cown,” Alice’s pronunciation of “gown,” sounds to Catherine like the French word “con,” or “cunt.” Catherine declares that she is disgusted with English—a language that is vulgar and immodest (“gros, et impudique”) and that respectable ladies would not use (III.iv.48).
In Act III, scene v, we see that the French nobility are at last starting to take the threat of Henry’s invasion seriously. Still, instead of being threatened by the English troops’ show of power, all of the Frenchmen except King Charles are simply scornful, scandalized that the English have been allowed to progress so far. Shakespeare throws in an assortment of French phrases to show the agitation of the group as well as to accent their foreignness. The noblemen exclaim, “O Dieu vivant!” (“O living God!”), “Mort de ma vie!” (“Death of my life!”), and “Dieu de batailles!” (“O God of battles!”—a phrase Henry himself uses later on). They deride and insult the English with amusing turns of phrase that make them seem more like mocking schoolboys than warriors. By portraying the Frenchmen’s petty mockery of the English, Shakespeare ironically mocks the French.
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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