Who was the greatest motivational speaker of all time? With all due respect to Knute Rockne and Matt Foley, it has to be Shakespeare’s Henry V in the play of the same name. For Henry V gives not one, but two, of the most rousing speeches in the history of the English language as he urges his men forward against the French. And Henry also shows that his eloquence can be employed in furtherance of less martial goals, too.
There is not much of a trace of the rascally, irresponsible, reckless Prince Hal of Henry IV, Parts i and II in the new king we see in Henry V. From the very first scenes, where he quizzes legal experts on Salic law and its impact on his claim to the French throne, Henry V is presented as a smart, careful, sober leader, capable of ferreting out traitors and calmly dealing with ambassadors and envoys, with nary a cup of sack about him. Indeed, his quiet and determined response to the goading and dismissive gift of tennis balls from the French Dauphin shows that he is embarrassed by his former antics and resolved to overcome them. Shakespeare further emphasizes the change in character by having Sir John Falstaff, the rogue who influenced Prince Hal when we first met him, die offstage.
Henry V is a martial play, with lots of action–more than could easily be shown on an Elizabethan stage. Shakespeare solves that dilemma by making liberal use of a narrator, who repeatedly urges the audience members to use their imaginations as the actors portray scenes in the faraway fields of France:
But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
As as the play progresses, the chorus guides us across time and space to follow the action. And what action! After being insulted by the Dauphin, Henry ferries his troops across the channel to face the haughty, overconfident French. He first shows his rhetorical brilliance at the siege of Harfleur, as he urged his troops forward to take the city: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.” He adds:
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!’
But his speech at the gates of Harfleur is only a hint of Harry’s full motivational gifts, shown as the English prepare for the battle of Agincourt. The English forces have taken Harfleur but are ravaged by illness and lack of food, and we see that the French forces, led by the hopelessly arrogant Dauphin, expect to inflict a crushing defeat. During the pre-dawn hours Henry disguises himself and goes among his men, to learn what his soldiers are thinking, and when they wonder at what the king might be doing, Henry responds: ““I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me.” As he moves on, Henry again reflects on the weight of kingship, as his father did before him.
But when the battle nears, and his men wish they had more soldiers, Henry’s blood is up, and he rises to the occasion to deliver his greatest speech of all, which is worth reprinting in full:
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 called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
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 Crispin’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 remember’d.
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 remember’d;
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 accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Inspired by Henry’s speech, the English go on to inflict a crushing defeat on the French. The French sue for peace, and Henry must discard his martial aspect and woo the French princess, Katharine, who speaks only a little English while Henry speaks only a little French. She is suspicious–remarking that “the tongues of pen are full of deceits”–but a humble, self-deprecating, awkward Henry wins her over, steals a kiss that seals the courtship, and remarks:
You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate: there is
more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the
tongues of the French council; and they should
sooner persuade Harry of England than a general
petition of monarchs.
As Henry and Kate prepare for marriage, he stands as the ultimate victor, knowing that their child will inherit the throne of both England and France. But when the chorus enters again, it is to let us know that the moment of triumph is fleeting indeed. When we turn next to Henry VI, hard times lay ahead for the English.