Study Guide

Henry V Warfare

By William Shakespeare

Warfare

KING HENRY
Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us.
And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gun-stones,
[...]
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.
So get you hence in peace. And tell the Dauphin
His jest will savour but of shallow wit
When thousands weep more than did laugh at it.—
Convey them with safe conduct.—Fare you well. (1.2.292-294; 304-310)

This is where Henry officially declares that he's going to invade France (after the Dauphin mocks Henry by sending him a boatload of tennis balls). What's interesting (and also kind of scary) about this speech is the way Henry says he's going turn the tennis balls to cannons and destroy France in a deadly match. We also notice here that Henry sees himself as God's avenger, which is an idea that will surface throughout the play.

KING HENRY
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,
[...]
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.
Dishonor 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
   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 luster in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot. (3.1.1-5; 18-35)

Here, Henry urges his men into battle with the famous rally cry, "Once more into the breach dear friends, once more." (A "breach" is just a gap in the fortifications – the English have just blasted a hole in the town's walls.) What's compelling about this speech is the way Henry declares that fighting against the French will ennoble the English troops, even if they're "of grosser blood" (commoners) than the noblemen who serve as their commanders. By telling his men that each of them has a "noble lustre" in their eyes, his strategy is to compel his troops to fight bravely. For the most part, Henry's battle cry works. Most of the troops are pumped up enough to rush forward, forcing the Governor of Harfleur to surrender the town. Not everyone is eager to charge into the breach, though. Keep reading...

BOY
Would I were in an alehouse in London! I would
give all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety. (3.2.13-14)

Hmm. Henry's rousing speech to his troops (see above) doesn't seem to have the desired effect on Bardolph, Pistol, Nim, or the unnamed Boy who says here that he wishes he was back in London at a bar. Is Shakespeare suggesting that these men and the young boy are cowards? Or, is he suggesting that they're right to want to be at home in the safety of a favorite hangout?

MACMORRIS
It is no time to discourse, so Chrish save
me. The day is hot, and the weather, and the wars,
and the King, and the dukes. It is no time to
discourse. The town is beseeched. An the trumpet
call us to the breach and we talk and, be Chrish, do
nothing, 'tis shame for us all. So God sa' me, 'tis
shame to stand still. It is shame, by my hand. And
there is throats to be cut, and works to be done,
and there ish nothing done, so Christ sa' me, la. (3.2.107-115)

Bardolph, Pistol, and Nim aren't the only ones who are reluctant to avoid the fighting. Here, three Captains (Fluellen, MacMorris, and Gower) stand around chitchatting about the art of war... while the other soldiers do all the dirty work of charging into the "breach." Even after MacMorris says it's a "shame" for them to be standing around instead of fighting, nobody does anything. So, what's the difference, if any, between Bardolph's low-life pals and the professional military captains we see here?

KING HENRY
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!' (3.1.36-37)

Like we said, Henry insists that God is on his side during his campaign against France, which makes it easy for him to justify the invasion. Here, he aligns himself ("Harry") with God and England's Patron Saint (George).

KING HENRY
If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie burièd.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and your flow'ring infants.
What is it then to me if impious war,
Arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do with his smirched complexion all fell feats
Enlinked to waste and desolation?
What is 't to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
We may as bootless spend our vain command
Upon the enraged soldiers in their spoil
As send precepts to the leviathan
To come ashore. Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command,
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O'erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil, and villany.
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters,
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? Will you yield and this avoid
Or, guilty in defense, be thus destroyed? (3.3.7-43)

Here, King Henry V warns the Governor of Harfleur that if he doesn't surrender immediately, the English soldiers will probably rape the town's virgins, smash in the heads of old men, and impale all the newborns on spikes. What does this speech say about King Henry? For some, this speech is simply evidence that Henry is a brilliant military strategist and orator. By conjuring up images of horrific violence, Henry convinces the Governor to surrender and avoids more bloodshed in Harfleur.

For others, this speech speaks to the atrocities of war. According to actor/director Kenneth Branagh, Henry's "threatening speech to the Governor of Harfleur offers a graphic reminder of the violent reality of medieval warfare at its most desperate" (source). Branagh's take on this speech can be seen in his 1989 film adaptation of Henry V, which goes out of its way to portray the gritty realities of the Battle of Agincourt.

KING HENRY
We would have all such offenders so cut
off: and we give express charge, that in our marches
through the country, there be nothing compelled
from the villages, nothing taken but paid for,
none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful
language; for when lenity and cruelty play
for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest
winner. (3.6.109-116)

There are a few ways to read this speech. On the one hand, this passage supports the idea that Henry's previous speech about virgins getting raped and babies getting impaled (see above) was just a savvy tactic to get the Governor to surrender Harfleur to the English troops. Here, Henry forbids his soldiers from pillaging the French town or "abus[ing]" the French people in any way, which suggests that he's not a ruthless war monger. On the other hand, Henry's anti-looting stance can be seen as just another smart political strategy: "When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentle gamester is the soonest winner." We should also point out that Henry's seemingly benevolent attitude toward the French shifts later on, when he orders his troops to kill all the French war prisoners.

KING HENRY
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;
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day. (4.3.62-69)

This is the most famous passage in the play and one of the most famous speeches of all time. Before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry declares that, if his troops fight alongside him, they will become his "band of brothers." This line in particular is often embraced as a statement about the strength of bonds that are forged in combat.

KING HENRY
But hark, what new alarum is this same?
The French have reinforced their scattered men.
Then every soldier kill his prisoners.
Give the word through. (4.7.36-39)

Here, Henry gives orders for his troops to kill all of the French war prisoners. Some critics and audiences see this as evidence that Henry is a monster. Others point out that this move is simply par for the course in medieval style warfare.

KING HENRY
If
thou would have such a one, take me. And take me,
take a soldier. Take a soldier, take a king. And what
sayest thou then to my love? Speak, my fair, and
fairly, I pray thee. (5.2.171-175)

This is weird. Why does Henry try to pass himself off a simple soldier when he tries to woo Catherine? (We already know that he's anything but.) As Henry insists over and over again in this scene that he's a "soldier," we begin to think that he approaches his pursuit of Catherine with the same kind of dogged determinism that he approaches warfare.

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