As part of our 600th commemoration of the battle of Agincourt, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique temporary collection of arms, armour, art, music and manuscripts at the Tower of London. To accompany the exhibition, the Royal Armouries has produced a catalogue with Yale University Press, edited by our Curator of Tower History and Tower Special Collections Malcolm Mercer and trustee Professor Anne Curry. Here, one of the contributors of the publication, Ros King, University of Southampton, writes on Shakespeare’s Henry V.
Shakespeare’s play of Henry V covers the whole of Henry’s 1415 campaign in France from initial discussions as to the validity of going to war to his eventual conquest of the French Princess Catherine in marriage. En route it presents the uncovering of the plot against him by the Earl of Cambridge and others, the death of Falstaff, Henry’s former friend and drinking companion; the embarkation of the army on an enormous flotilla of ships, the siege of Harfleur, and his notable victory at Agincourt—all, as the play’s Chorus famously remarks, by exploiting the imagination of its audience. But it is also one of Shakespeare’s most contentious works, dividing readers between those that think the play glorifies Henry’s role as one of England’s most successful military leaders, and those who think it condones war-mongering brutality. Ever since it was written, it has been cut and rearranged in attempts to iron out its contradictions and make it more simply heroic, more ‘band of brothers’. Meanwhile its most famous phrase ‘Once more into the breach’ has taken on a life of its own, being pressed into myriad uses great and small by those seeking to persuade others to do something they would probably rather not do.
My chapter in the Royal Armouries ‘Agincourt’ exhibition catalogue argues that the evident contradictions in the play are a deliberate part of its design and the reason why it is still so compelling 400 years on. The play presents a variety of crunch points on the road to war: Henry seeking the church’s support so that he does not have to bear the moral responsibility for war; church leaders persuading him to make war in order to distract him from the bill before parliament that would confiscate church lands; French ambassadors delivering a load of tennis balls, thus goading him into waging a war they believe he will lose. Most tellingly we see a poor ordinary soldier, Michael Williams, one of the very few commoners in the history plays to whom Shakespeare ever gives a name, as he struggles to make sense of what has brought him, cold and hungry, to a field in France. How does he know that this war is just? What will happen to the many wives and children who will be left destitute back home? And how is it that an unknown stranger (Henry in disguise) somehow manages to deflect his anxieties with platitudes about an individual’s responsibility for his own soul? He knows that the stranger has not answered his question about whether the war is just, but cannot put his finger on quite how he has sidestepped the issue. His frustration breaks out into violence.
In fact the play is as full of instances of treachery, deceit, exploitation and violence between the multinational, English, Scots, Welsh and Irish troops in Henry’s so-called ‘English’ army as it is of battle between English and French. Its contradictions ask us to consider both the idea of ‘right’ on the road to war, and the nature of justice in the conduct of that war: these are the same questions that currently fill the news channels with regard to the conduct of wars in Iraq and Syria.
Henry horrifies us with his attempt to force the surrender of Harfleur by threatening to rape and murder its women, children, and old people. In Shakespeare’s day this speech might have recalled the behaviour of (Catholic) Spanish troops sacking (Protestant) towns in the Netherlands. Today it evokes the actions of so-called Islamic State. But the licence to sack a town that has held out under siege, and to kill or enslave its inhabitants is justified in the bible (Deuteronomy 20.10-20). Objecting to that behaviour means being able to reject part of a revered religious text. In the end, the play’s Henry orders that the inhabitants be well treated; the historical Henry expelled them so that the town could be settled by poor Englishmen.
Shakespeare’s play also presents, one after the other, two different historical versions of Henry’s other potential violation of the law of war: his order to kill the French prisoners. In one version, this act is pragmatic, although still brutal: the French are regrouping and the English cannot afford to keep prisoners alive. In the other, it is retribution for a French war-crime—the massacre of unarmed boys. The Welsh and English captains, Fluellen and Gower, are completely satisfied by this second explanation. Audiences, though, have just been made to witness the so-called ‘fog of war’ in operation.
It is well known that Shakespeare borrowed extensively from other writers—for this play, his main source was Holinshed’s Chronicle history of England. But he was not someone who would make do with the obvious sources if something else could be brought in to complicate the plot. My colleague Craig Lambert has recently demonstrated that the fleet that transported Henry’s army to France was only half the size previously thought: a mere 700 ships rather than the 1500 claimed in the St Albans Chronicle or even the 1000 in Holinshed. In reality, he says, rather than the ‘city on th’inconstant billows dancing’ that Shakespeare describes, it was more of a ‘town’.
But truth in plays, even history plays, is sometimes wider than a single set of historical facts. I demonstrate that Shakespeare was exploiting a very different maritime event in order to make his dramatic point: Cleopatra in her barge on the River Cydnus when she first beguiled Mark Antony. Shakespeare knew of this extravaganza from the description by the Romano-Greek historian Plutarch in a recently published English translation by Sir Thomas North. He would later incorporate it word for word in the play Antony and Cleopatra. As used in Henry V, a few strangely antique words betray their origin, and give the description of Henry’s fleet an exotic, mythical character. If it seems odd to liken Henry’s military expedition to the most famous seduction event in history, the idea finds ironic culmination at the end of the play when he presses his suit to Catherine: ‘in loving me you should love the friend of France; for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it; I will have it all mine’; all his, even though it now lies in ruins from the effects of his war.
Thus, although the confident assertions of the play’s Chorus have contributed to the lasting myth that is Agincourt, the play’s structure, taken in its entirety, with its wide-ranging comparisons, contradictions, ironies, and black humour raises questions to which we still seek answers: about appropriate punishment; the nature of loyalty, and of treachery; the responsibility of friendship; and the right to make war. If we really were to engage our imaginations, this structure might help us expand our ethical understanding of these topics. Rather than asking us to make an either/or interpretation, the play invites us to respond with ‘yes, and . . .’.
To discover more from our ‘Agincourt’ publication, please see further posts via this link, or pick up a copy for yourself via the Yale University Press website. The Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition is open at the Tower of London from 23 October until 31 January. For more details please visit our website.