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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds Despite the triumph at Harfleur, King Henry V’s army still have a long way to go. When it comes to the Battle of Agincourt they know they are fighting against the odds. They are greatly outnumbered by the French. So the king has to do a second pre-battle pep talk. But this time it takes a different form. King Harry goes in disguise among his men the night before the battle in order to take the temperature of the army. Given the seriousness of the situation, the likelihood that many will die, the possibility that the king will be taken ransom, the possibility of defeat, he treads carefully. And he’s full of doubts.

Skip to 0 minutes and 52 seconds It’s a very, very different sort of language from that of the once more unto the breach. There’s a genuine recognition here on Shakespeare’s part of the horror of war, the fear of death. I’ve got in front of me a quite extraordinarily evocative document. It’s the presumptive will of a Warwickshire gentleman, a well-to-do Warwickshire gentleman called Alan Lestraunge. And he’s making his will because he’s about to go off in the king’s service in France. It’s in the time of Henry V. I can see King Henry V’s name here. And he speaks about making provision for his daughter. This is a man who’s going to war, and he knows that he may not come back.

Skip to 1 minute and 46 seconds And indeed, we know from another document that he didn’t come back.

Skip to 1 minute and 52 seconds That’s just one example from real history of what it would be like to go off and join the army in the time of Henry V. What Shakespeare has to do is bring alive on stage that idea of the soldier’s fear of death and at the same time retain the respect of the audience for the king. And so it is in the scene when King Henry goes in disguise among his men. He starts talking with some ordinary soldiers. One’s called Williams. One’s called Bates - very common, ordinary names.

Skip to 2 minutes and 28 seconds And they’re speaking in prose, not in verse, the elevated language of the great rhetorical speeches such as once more unto the breach - not in the verse of the royalty and the aristocracy in the plays, but in the prose of the common man. The king, pretending not be the king, speaks of loyalty. Me thinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the king’s company, he says. But then he adds, his cause being just, and his quarrel honourable. To die in a just war, an honourable war, is fine. But Williams the soldier says, ‘That’s more than we know’. ‘How do we, the ordinary people, know whether the cause is just?’

Skip to 3 minutes and 12 seconds And, of course, what the audience knows is that there is a bit of a question mark about whether the cause is just. We in the audience think back to that open scene and the rather convoluted argument of King Henry and the bishops, justifying his claim to the land and the throne of France. It’s not so clear cut. Bates, the other soldier, then says, ‘that’s also more than we should seek after. It’s enough to know we are the king’s subjects. If the cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us’. So if it’s an unjust war, then all the blame for the death falls on the king. Williams picks up on this idea.

Skip to 3 minutes and 56 seconds ‘If the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all “we died at such a place” some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am a feared there are few die well that die in a battle. For how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument?

Skip to 4 minutes and 31 seconds Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it, who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection. It’s a real dilemma for the common soldier. You can’t disobey. You can’t desert. You can’t be a coward. If you do, you will be executed. But when you are dying in battle, how do you have the opportunity to make your peace with God? It’s all very well for a gentleman like Lestraunge to have made his will calmly in advance to have provided for his family. For the common soldier, who knows what will happen.

Skip to 5 minutes and 11 seconds King Henry’s conscience is pricked by this. He fights his corner in the debate. But after he’s left alone on stage in soliloquy he speaks of the great sense of responsibility, the weight that bears down upon him. And he also remembers that the way through which his father, Henry IV, got the crown was distinctly questionable. Henry IV had taken the crown from Richard II. So is his son Henry V actually a just king? Might this be the moment when God decides to punish the son for the sins of the father? It’s a great deal of uncertainty. But in the end, the king falls back on faith, on the idea that God is on the side of right.

The night before Agincourt

Henry V is regarded as Shakespeare’s most patriotic English play. Yet several characters fighting in the name of England are actually Welsh, Scottish and Irish.

How are they portrayed differently, and why might Shakespeare have included these differences? Can we tell what their motivations and perceptions of what it means to be English are in the play?

A useful place to start looking is Act Three Scene Two of Henry V.

Featured SBT item: Will of Alan Lestraunge, from the time of Henry V

  • Reference no:DR37/1/2794

Find more online: After Agincourt

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