Randomly selecting things to read, sometimes comes up trumps. This week, my random pick was Shakespeare’s great history play, Henry V.
The events leading up to the battle of Agincourt, the battle itself and the ensuing peace process following the French defeat form the backdrop for this epic drama.
The dramatis personae that populate this medieval world, are a diverse group.
The play gives us a cross section of English society from the highest to the lowest. There are English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish soldiers in the English army. The French are represented by their nobles and courtiers who are attendant on the King of France, Charles VI.
As these characters interact, their prejudices, motivations, thoughts, plots and relationships are revealed.
At the centre is King Hal, a wild young man morphed into a religious, articulate and steely king, whose desire to claim France is the initial lever for action. When his claims are rejected by the French king and his son, the Dauphin sends an insulting gift of tennis balls as an accompaniment to the rejection, Henry takes the decision to raise an army and to claim his perceived birthright in person.
These events tell us a lot about Henry, as king. He’s ambitious and wants his claims to be taken seriously. He has pursued peaceful means to gain his ends as first priority, but when the French are dismissive and disrespectful, he acts decisively and courageously. He balances up the risk and rewards of possible actions.
Other aspects of his character are highlighted when, early in the play, he talks to Cambridge, Scrope, and Grey (English nobles who have been bribed by the French to kill Henry before he leaves England) about the case of a drunken soldier who has spoken against him. Whilst the treacherous nobles advocate harshness, Henry speaks of mercy. Something which he cannot then apply to the trio when their plot is unfolded.
With the exception of the plotters, Henry is surrounded by a supportive group of nobility. The French, too, are cohesive in that they believe that they can easily beat the English, but the English land in France and encouraged by their orator King, successfully attack Harfleur:
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!’
As Henry’s army marches across France, disease takes its toll and many of his soldiers die. He takes the difficult decision to fight with tired, sick men rather than defer the engagement and lose the initiative.
By this time, the French have organised numerically superior forces (five times the English numbers) and confidently expect to smash the English. On the eve of the battle, they are impatient for daylight so that the fight can begin.
Overnight, the English remain reserved and, in the light of the odds against them, resigned to what they must do. Henry notes the mood of his troops, by walking amongst them anonymously. As the prime architect of their fate, he must feel a huge responsibility for his army’s jeopardy.
But this is a king, who leads from the front and he rouses their spirits with an amazing call to arms speech.
The battle begins at first light on St Crispin’s Day. The events of the battle are reported back between the characters and the day ends with an incredible victory for the English. Whilst there are English losses, notably York and Suffolk, these are small compared to the decimation of the French, who lose many from the noble houses of France.
The English take so many prisoners that there is a risk that his army could be overthrown if the prisoners can organise themselves, so he issues an order that all French prisoners should be killed. A controversial battlefield decision in a life or death moment.
The play ends with peace negotiations and the betrothal of Henry and Katherine, the French king’s daughter.
Scores 10 / 10. Needs to be read multiple times to get the best out of it, probably with a GCSE study guide open as an accompaniment.