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;
This day, St Crispin’s day, the 606th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, is as good a time as any to look at who we are, or at least at half of the nation.
Henry V, Shakespeare’s version, knew what he was doing. He knew how to get the best from his men, by encouraging the best of manliness. If anyone had told him there is such a thing as ‘toxic masculinity’, they would be out like the plague they are. Unflinching solidity in duty is part of ones essence, and cowardice is despicable. Injury is not to be wept over but is a badge of honour.
He is perhaps Shakespeare’s favourite character: Henry as a prince, unexpectedly elevated after his father seized the throne (in Richard II), grows from an impetuous young man, the despair of his father, throughout Henry IV Parts I & II to become a mighty king in his own play. Here he consistently, artfully blames others for all his actions: he ensures the French king brings war upon himself, he leads Cambridge, Scroop and Masham to declare that treason must receive no mercy and thus putting their own heads in the noose. This consistent habit of his, which must have annoyed his court, is not an abdication of responsibility but puts his deliberate actions beyond question. It is not all self-serving either: after victory he does not claim glory but says ‘God, thy hand was here’.
To his court, Henry may have been an enigma, but to his men, he was master of their self-worth. What other king would say:
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
So with one speech he comes down to the philosophy of all the men of Britain gathered there as much for Fluellen, MacMorris and Jamy as for Bardolph and Pistol. By inviting men to leave, expenses paid, looks like separating his men but instead it unites them in one manner and purpose:
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.
Did any leave? No, for no man of Britain worthy of the name would do so, for this is the measure of a man.
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.
Those who hide from themselves in glass apartments pretending that they can rise above nature by the modernity of culture and technology will flee from the implications of the speech the Bard puts in King Henry’s mouth, and be ashamed of what it stirs in their hearts, but it is all vanity. Man is man. We understand; we understand.
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