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Band of Brothers in History and Literature

Henry V Speech at Agincourt

In the grand tradition of early Greek historians, Shakespeare puts words in the mouths of his heroes. Henry V was a history play, yet it would have been anti-climactic for Shakespeare to have set down the King's actual words just before the battle of Agincourt (25 October 1415). According to Desmond Seward's Biography, this is what actually happened:

...riding a small, grey pony - a page leading a great war-horse behind him - he rode up and down the line in front of his troops. His eve-of-battle speech struck a familiar note - he "was come into France to recover his lawful inheritance and that he had good and just cause to claim it". He warned the archers that the French had sworn to cut three fingers off the right hand of every English bowman captured. "Sirs and fellows," he promised his army, "as I am true king and knight, for me this day shall never England ransom pay." When he had finished they shouted back, "Sir, we pray God give you a good life and the victory over your enemies!"

This is based on a priest's recollection of the scene. One can imagine the intensity of Henry as he contemplated the consequences of being captured by the French, the ruin of his country and its treasury to ransom him. It had happened before in English history to Richard I when he was returning to England from the Crusades. He then was resolved to win or die. Shakespeare's speech gives a more inspiring account that is less personal to Henry and calls out more to the brotherhood of soldiers. In a way it elevates Henry by showing him to be a leader of men and not merely a dictator concerned only with his own private woes. Enter the KING
WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING. What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day 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-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Shakespeare's version came some two hundred years after the original. In it, it is easy to see themes that were not stressed in Henry's actual speech. We can discern a rise of nationalism over purely personal power. We can smoke out a forward looking man, seeing what is to come and not fearing in the moment. Above all is the quintessential evocation of the brotherhood in arms that knows rank, yes, but knows not jealousy, hatred or dishonor among the ranks. It is a place where every man would give his life for the benefit of any other.

We see the kernel of this idea in the king's actual speech. He would give his life to save his country from ruin, but within it we are left to wonder if his pride in himself is not more important than his pride in his country. He is an inexperienced man, trying to struggle forth from selfish boyhood to be the father of his people. Shakespeare makes him better. He is grown to be the wisest of a brotherhood in arms. He inspires his men to fight not for him, but for something better than an individual, better than themselves.

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