The Life of Henry the Fifth

They grow up so quickly, don’t they? Through the two parts of Henry IV, we watch Hal molt and shed his snake skin to teeter on the brink of adult- and king-hood. In Henry V he transforms from ugly bad-boy duckling to swan, spreads his wings, and takes flight over France. He brings it and a wife home for himself, his country, and his God.

While Aesop may have related Fable number 226, The Tortoise and the Hare, sometime in the sixth century BC, Shakespeare puts his own spin on it as he commits it to paper here. He combines it with scenes of leadership that would stir and spur generals and coaches alike, from Lombardi to Landry, from Wellington to Washington.

Shakespeare shows us the struggle to shake of the chrysalis of his old life in many ways. For starters, the usual suspects and partners in crime from his juvenile delinquency are largely absent. Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph provide some comic relief, but this play is serious; as is Hal, who is no longer Hal, but Harry, or King Henry V. The scales tip from a preponderance of silliness to solemnity. Falstaff is a distant memory, destined to resurface again only in comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The new King Henry V (KHV forthwith) is contemplative, considerate, collaborative, and compassionate. He is humblest here in his most challenging and valiant moment, taking no credit for his conquests, handing them all directly to God, who he thanks, summons, and entreats 37 times (to the French royalty’s collective six, Mon Dieu!) Yet for all this God invocation, he does not pretend to be divine, and defers to the two Bishops and his counselors before undertaking any action against France (I,i). He notes that “the King is but a/man, as I am.” (IV,i,101-2) He wanders amongst his “brothers, friends, and countrymen” (IV,chorus,34), unrecognized, touching base and commiserating with them on the eve of this major, critical battle. Even after the unlikely British victory, when he visits the vanquished French King, and has every right to be boastful and smug, he is humble and self-deprecating. When he woos the French Princess Katherine, he tells her “If thou canst love a fellow of this temper,/Kate, whose face is not worth sunburning, that never/looks in his glass for love of anything he sees there, let/ thine eye be the cook.” (V,ii,146-9)

KHV is every inch the underdog here; I’d half expect to see him in production in red body suit, blue cape, long floppy ears, and white “U” emblazoned upon his chest. He may have agonized over his decision to invade France, but once committed, he takes on the task with dogged determination, which, as does the Hare, the French sorely underestimate.

The French Ambassador arrives to cut a deal and serves up a goodwill gift of tennis balls to remind KHV of his childhood, and perhaps make him feel a child again. KHV returns the serve with a vengeance, telling the messenger where he can put his balls and his offer: “When we have matched our rackets to these balls/We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set/Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.” (I,ii,261-3) Just in case that was too subtle, he suggests the Ambassador tell the Dauphin that “this mock of his/Hath turn’d his balls to gun-stones and his soul/Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance/That shall fly with them.” (I,ii,281-4). Ouch.

As the rag-tag and outnumbered English troops approach Agincourt, their tattered Underdog capes barely keeping them warm, the French scratch their heads like the coterie atop the castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “We’ll fart in your general direction,” they might as well say, as they mock their opponent’s appearance and physical condition and smugly dismiss their ability to persevere and progress. The French Constable chides, “his numbers are so few,/His soldiers sick and famish’d in their march;/For I am sure, when he shall see our army,/He’ll drop his heart into the sink of fear.” (III,vi,56-9). The Dauphin, who may as well be doing his nails as he awaits the onslaught, indulges in an egotistical fantasy about his superiority and prowess. He likens his horse to Pegasus and indulges in this delusion: “When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk; he/trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the/basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of/Hermes.” (III,vii,15-8)

But slow and steady wins the race, and while the French Hares preen and expound on the sidelines, KHV and the Tortoises march determinedly on, and at Agincourt, David slays Goliath. Badly. As skewed as the number of French to English troops were going in, so were the number of French to English dead at the end of the day. Historical estimates give the English 2,000 cavalry and 13,000 infantry to the French troops of 60,000 and the English body count of 400-500 to the French 7,000 (IV, vii, 76-106 footnote). All the French can do is lick their wounds and wonder what went wrong. “The day is yours.” (IV,vii,116-7) The English certainly did “Give the devil his due.” (IV,vii,87)

KHV has proven himself to be a great man, and a great leader. It’s not just the magnitude or improbability of the victory – anyone could read about that in a British history book. It’s the eloquence with which Shakespeare imbues KHV to tease it out of his men that dazzles. He raises the bar and sets a new standard for motivational speeches on the battlefield and in the locker room alike with his, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;/Or close the wall up with our English dead” (III,i,1-2), and “Cry, ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George.” (III,i,34) But his coup de grace (I’m conquering French for Hal) is his amazing ability, on the eve of this unbalanced and bloody battle, not only to rally the troops, but to convince them that it’s their honor and privilege to fight. And furthermore, that the poor folk at home who do not get to fight will rue the day they missed the opportunity to be outnumbered, cold, hungry, and in some cases, skewered, dismembered, and impaled. His Saint Crispian speech at the precipice of Agincourt (IV,iii,18-67) makes the battle, the play, and his words stand up, command attention, and go down in history.

“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 Cripsian’s day.” (IV,iii,60-7)

This gives me pause, a chill, and chokes me up. Our Hal certainly has grown a pair, grown up, and settled down. Sadly, we know from the Epilogue, and sequel scene-setter for Henry VI 1,2,and 3, that KHV dies young and leaves his infant son to succeed him. All those Henrys next…

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