Henry V

by: William Shakespeare

Act IV, scenes iii–v

Summary Act IV, scenes iii–v
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Analysis: Act IV, scenes iii–v

King Henry’s inspirational St. Crispin’s Day speech—so called because the battle is fought on the feast day of St. Crispin, a holiday in the England of the play—is perhaps the most famous passage in the play. In this speech, which is meant to bolster the morale of his soldiers before they head into a battle that they are almost certain to lose, Henry demonstrates his customary brilliance with words and astounding charisma, both of which he has displayed so often before.

Henry’s challenge is to turn his troops’ small numbers into an advantage, which he does by convincing his men that the battle is more than a mathematical formula, that they have all come there to fight for honor, for justice, and for glory. He makes fighting with him at Agincourt sound like a privilege, one that will allow its participants to capture more glory than anything else could. Henry also brings up, once more, the motif of the bond between king and commoner. As in Act III, scene i, before the Battle of Harfleur, he unites himself with his men, saying,

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition….

Henry claims that even a commoner will be made noble by fighting at his side and that the result will be lifelong honor that will elevate these fighters above their peers.

The comic scene of Pistol’s capture of a Frenchman plays on language in much the same way that the earlier scene of Catherine’s English lesson does. Pistol’s misunderstandings of French, like Catherine’s of English, are amusing. He takes the soldier’s exclamation, “O Seigneur Dieu!” (“O Lord God!”), for a name and mistakes the words “bras” (“arm”) and “moi” (“me”) for “brass” and “moy” (a unit of measurement). Pistol must rely on the boy to translate for him, and, ironically, the boy shows himself to be better informed than the man he serves.

In the jaws of defeat, the French noblemen at long last recognize the power of the English combatants. When they realize that their troops have been scattered and defeated, their first reaction is one of overwhelming shame. But the nobles show a hitherto unprecedented courage when they decide to return to the fight instead of surrendering, as they might, and giving themselves up to be ransomed. This last show of courage on the part of the French adds a welcome new dimension to Shakespeare’s characterization of different nationalities and prevents his portrayal of the French from becoming a one-dimensional mockery motivated only by patriotic loyalty to England.