“Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more…”

Henry V

Act Three

By Dennis Abrams


Act Three:  Fighting rates outside Harfleur, where King Henry exhorts his forces to drive through the town walls.  Bardolph is eager to advance, but his reluctant companions have to be driven on by Fluellen, who then argues with his fellow captains.  They are interrupted by Henry’s address to the Governor of Harfleur, warning of potential atrocities if the town continues to resist.  The governor surrenders – a triumph for Henry, whose forces are beginning to tire.  At the French court, where Princess Katherine is secretly learning English, King Charles is so shocked by what has happened that he commits a huge army to engage the invaders.  Meanwhile, back amongst the English, Bardolph is executed for stealing.  King Henry tells the French herald that though his army is weak, he will not avoid an encounter with the French.


Henry is, obviously, given the lion’s share of words in this play –his is Shakespeare’s largest role to date – and his skills as an orator have passed into legend.  “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” he urges his compatriots outside the walls of Harfleur:

Or close the wall up with our English dead.

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility,

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger,

Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,

Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage…

                                     …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!’

The glamour of Henry’s speech, one of the most famous in the Shakespearian canon – and which actually occupies an entire scene – is undeniable, and it is often included in literary anthologies for soldiers heading off to war (most recently in Iraq).  But the King’s rhetoric, although thrilling, is also intrinsically euphemistic:  war is a “game,” the English soldiers “friends”; the “mean and base” are made “noble” fighting side by side with their countrymen.  Henry’s equalizing spirit will appear again at Agincourt, where he urges his troops, calling them “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

Meeting stiffer resistance, however, changes the way Henry’s language analyzes battle.  Faced with the stubborn citizens of Harfleur – who dare to resist the occupying English army – Henry’s tone darkens as he threatens the townspeople with the consequences of their actions.  “Take pity of your town and of your people,” he coldly suggests,

Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command,

Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace

O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds

Of heady murder, spoil, and villainy.

If not – why, in a moment look to see

The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand

Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;

Your fathers taken by the silver beards,

And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;

Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,

Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused

Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry

At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.

A threat it may be – and, as it proves, effective enough to prevent its implementation – but there is no disguising the calculated violence in Henry’s words, nor the fact that it foreshadows one of Henry V’s most obscene actions, the execution by both sides of their prisoners.  Though the King will later insist that God’s “arm” was at Agincourt, here his own soldiers are compared to King Herod’s “bloody-hunting slaughtermen,” the biblical soldiers whose grim task it was to hunt down the infant Jesus.  In little more than the space of two scenes, we have been presented with the extreme realities of war – its pity along with its glory.


From Goddard:

“With Falstaff’s death Bardolph feels that the fuel is gone that maintained the fire of his life.  But Pistol is less downcast, and his inferences are more in the spirit of Commodity:

Come, let’s away.  My love, give me thy lips.

Look to my chattels and my movables:

Let sense rule; the word is ‘Pitch and Pay.’

Trust none;

For oaths are straws, men’s faiths are wafer-caked,

And hold-fast is the only dog, my duck:

Therefore, Caveto be thy counselor.

Go, clear thy crystals.  Yoke-fellows in arms,

Let us to France; like horse-leeches my boys,

To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck!

‘And that’s but unwholesome food, they say,’ the Boy remarks, though nobody seems to notice.  Falstaff’s page is perhaps referring to ‘blood-pudding.’  Yet it is into such casual utterances that Shakespeare is most likely to slip his own opinion.

‘Now Lords, for France!’ Henry had said at the end of the previous scene – a phrase to which Pistol’s ‘Let us to France’ is antiphonal.  Stripped of its chivalric and religious nomenclature, what Henry goes on to say is:  let us engulf France in our empire and if she refuses to be swallowed freely let us apply ‘bloody constraint’ – and he sends his uncle ahead to threaten the enemy with fiery tempest, thunder, and earthquake.  It is interesting that the French King, in contemplating the coming conflict, picks on  Pistol’s very metaphor of sucking, though with less suggestion of the leech:

For England his approaches makes as fierce

As waters to the sucking of a gulf.

Hoping to avert the catastrophe, he offers Henry, the Chorus tells us,

Katherine his daughter, and with her, to dowry

Some petty and his unprofitable dukedoms.

But what are dukedoms and daughters (the alliterations reminds us of ducats and daughters) to a man whose blood is up?  We are not told that Henry so much as sends a refusal, and we see him at the beginning of the next act addressing his soldiers before Harfleur:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,

Or close the wall up with our English dead!

Trite as it has become from schoolboy declamation, the passage is a crucial one and cannot be omitted:

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility:

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger;

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;

Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;

Let it pry through the portage of the head

Like the brass canon; let the brow o’erwhelm it

As fearfully as doth a galled rock

O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,

Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.

Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,

Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit

To his full height!

What this boils down to is the doctrine that in peace the manly virtues are all right but that in war man ought to become a beast.  That men often do become beasts when they fight is notorious.  But that it is the duty of the soldier deliberately to transform himself into a beast in advance is a totally different proposition, and Henry’s unabashed advocacy of it shows how nearly dead, at such a moment at least, the chivalric conception of honor was in his mind.

What did Shakespeare think of this red-blooded doctrine?

The question, ‘What did Shakespeare think?’ about this or that is frequently a futile one.  But on this particular point his plays are so full of evidence, converging to one conclusion that I believe we are entitled to say exactly what Shakespeare thought down to the very noun he would have used to characterize Henry.  He thought Henry was talking like a savage.  ‘Fie, savage, fie!’ was the retort of Hector to his younger brother Troilus (in Troilus and Cressida) when the latter began ranting in precisely Henry’s vein:

Troilus:  For the love of all the gods,

Let us leave the hermit pity with our mothers,

And when we have our armours buckled on,

The venom’d vengeance ride upon our swords,

Spur them to ruthful work, reign them from ruth,

Hector:  Fie, savage, fie!

Now Hector is a man we cannot imagine giving way to tigerish passion in any circumstances, a man immeasurably closer than Henry, I believe, to Shakespeare’s ideal of the warrior-hero.

But we do not need to go beyond the present play.  In the last act, in one of the wisest speeches on peace in Shakespeare, the Duke of Burgundy observes that a people long plunged in war

grow like savages, — as soldiers will

That nothing do but meditate on blood.

Ironically, Henry’s own picture, in another mood, of the type he most admired was, as we have seen, that of a man

Free from passion or of mirth or anger,

Constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood.

This is Hamlet’s ideal of the man who is not passion’s slave but whose blood and judgment are well commingled.  What Shakespeare himself thought of this ideal, passage after passage in the plays and poems of this period makes plain, none better than the 94th sonnet:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

If anyone thinks Shakespeare considered this self-control possible in peace only, and not in war, all his greatest warriors give that idea the lie:  Faulconbridge, Hector, Othello, even Coriolanus.

Henry’s idea of war and the warrior is as antithetical to the classical as to the chivalric conception.  ‘The Greek battle-pieces are calm,’ says Emerson, ‘the heroes, in whatever violent action engaged, retain a serene aspect; as we say of Niagara when it falls without speed.’  Here the virtues of war are the virtues of peace carried to their highest pitch.  But in Henry’s doctrine the virtues of war are the vices of peace carried to their highest pitch.  Followed through, this is the totalitarian conception.  Its logical upshot is one nation leaping suddenly on another out of the air in undeclared war, like a beast from Ambush.

The Battle of Agincourt has long been considered a turning point in military history because it was the first victory of massed yeomen over armored knights.  In so far as his ‘tiger’ speech is representative of its victor, Shakespeare makes that battle an even more significant turning point in military morality.  There is everything to indicate that the poet admired the hero who kept his head on the battlefield.  (Even Falstaff does that.)  He has a special term for the opposite condition.

To be furious,

Is to be frighted out of fear; and in that mood

The dove will peck the estridge; and I see still,

A diminution in our captain’s brain

Restores his  heart.  When valour preys on reason,

It eats the sword it fights with.

So Enobarbus describes the defeated and desperate Antony.  And Caithness says much the same of Macbeth after he had begun to run amuck:

Some say he’s mad; others that lesser hate him

Do call it valiant fury.

Whoever holds that Shakespeare indorses Henry’s advice about imitating the action of the tiger should trace, with the aid of a concordance, the poet’s use of the word ‘fury.’

It would be superfluous to quote the rest of the King’s oration with its equation of force and ‘the fathers,’ its allusion to Alexander the Great, its animal metaphors and similes.  ‘The game’s afoot,’ he exclaims in conclusion:

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!’

Whereupon Nym, Bardolph, Pistol, and the Boy enter, and Bardolph cries:  ‘On, on, on, on, on! to the breach, to the breach!’  Evidently Shakespeare’s game’s afoot as well as Henry’s.  ‘The humour of it is too hot,’ says Nym of Bardolph’s battle cry.  It might have been said of the King’s.  And the rest of the scene, with Fluellen’s ‘Up to the breach,’ you dogs!’ etc., contains what look like a number of oblique glances at the main action, especially in certain lines of the boy.  His companions have been trying to teach him filching.  But he says it is against his manhood ‘if I should take from another’s pocket to put into mine; for it is plain pockting up of wrongs.  I must leave them and seek some better service:  their villainy goes against my weak stomach, and therefore I must cast it up.’  Boy as he is, his sense of mine and thine is more highly developed than Henry’s.  it is Captain Macmorris, the Irishman, who comes closer to the King.  His words indeed sound at times like a parody of Henry’s extraordinary collocations of God and war:  ‘There is throats to be cut…so Chrish sa’me, la!…so Chrish save me, I will cut off your head.’

We next see the King with his forces before the gates of Harfleur attempting to complete the reduction of the town by threats in place of cannon balls.  It is economy to let words save munitions.

If I begin the battery once again,

I will not leave the half-achiev’d Harfleur

‘Till in her ashes she lie buried.

The gates of merchy shall be all shut up,

and then follows a picture of violence and licentiousness let loose such as would be hard to duplicate in Shakespeare:  bloody soldiers seizing by the hair shrill-shrieking virgins, old men with their brains dashed out against the walls, naked infants spitted upon pikes, mothers run mad as in the days of Herod.  (The reference to Herod is fitting, for it out-herods Herod.)  Even the threats of that Marlowesque ‘fiend of hell,’ Talbot, in a like situation before Bordeaux in 1 Henry VI, read like a weak dilution of Henry V’s outburst.  But the inevitable contrast is that between Henry before Harfleur and Faulconbridge before Angiers.  Faulconbridge was not squeamish.  But instead of threatening the city with all the details of destruction he ingeniously put it in a dilemma.  The wit, humor, and even reticence he displayed on this occasion put Henry’s verbal orgy of blood lust in the sorriest light.  What would the Bastard have said to it?  Presumably just what he said to the First Citizen of Angiers:

Here’s a stay

That shakes the rotten carcass of Death

Out of his rags!  Here’s a large mouth, indeed,

That pits forth death and mountains, rocks and seas…

What cannoneer begot this lusty blood?

He speaks plain cannon fire, and smoke, and bounce;

He gives the bastinado with his tongue:

Our ears are cudgell’d:…

Zounds!  I was never so bethump’d with words

Since I first call’d my brother’s father dad.

The most ominous parallel of all is Shakespeare’s description of Tarquin’s emotional state before the rape of Lucrece.:

His rage of lust by gazing qualified;

Slack’d, not suppress’d; for standing by her side,

     His eye, which late this mutiny restrains,

     Unto a greater uproar tempts his veins:

And they, like straggling slaves for pillage fighting,

Obdurate vassals fell exploits effecting,

In bloody death and ravishment delighting,

Nor children’s tears nor mother’s groans respecting,

Swell in their pride, the onset still expecting:

     Anon his beating heart, alarum striking, 

     Gives the hot charge and bids them do their liking.

Those in our day who wrote into international law the doctrine that offensive war is a crime were hailed as pioneers.  They were anticipated by Shakespeare.

If Henry had not proved his physical courage at Shrewsbury, there would be every Shakespearean precedent for doubting it on the basis of this speech before Harfleur.

We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside,

says Rosalind to Celia when they are about to disguise themselves,

As many other mannish cowards have.

And Brutus declares that

     hollow men, like horses hot at hand,

Make gallant show and promise of their mettle;

But when they should endure the bloody spur,

They fall their crests, and like deceitful jades,

Sink in the trial.

Let no one imagine that I quote such passages as characterizations of Henry.  But they may well set us questioning whether the hero of Shrewsbury and King Henry V are quite the same man.  ‘Men who wish to inspire terror,’ says Emerson, ‘seem thereby to confess themselves cowards.’

Oh, but Henry was just trying to frighten Harfleur out of fighting, it will be said.  (And, incidentally, he succeeded.)  When it came to actual warfare he was the soul of mercy.  Here, for example, is the real Henry:

‘and we give express charge, that in our marches through the country, there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.’

What could be more exemplary, more impeccable?  His soldiers are not to indulge even in abusive words, let alone deeds.  It sounds incredible – coming from the same man.  But these Lancasters as a family have taught us to ask what they have been doing or are just about to do when their words become especially generous or merciful.  What are the circumstances in this case?

The circumstances are that Fluellen, the Welsh captain, has announced that Bardolph is to be executed for robbing a church.  Bardolph, we recall, was one of Hal’s cronies of the wild-oats days, and time was when he and Hal went stealing together.  Does Hal remember this at a moment so critical for his old friend?  It is hard to see how he could have failed to.  But he does not mention it.  ‘We would have all such offenders so cut off,’ is his laconic comment, whereupon he plunges in his next breath into his order against plundering.  Much ink has been spilled over the rejection of Falstaff.  This much briefer rejection of Bardolph has scarcely been noticed.  But it is psychologically hardly less interesting.  The King spares Bardolph (who indeed is not present) the sermon he preached on the other occasion.  In place of it, he gives orders for lenity and mercy on his soldiers’ part.  Henry covers his unmerciful deed by his merciful words.  ‘I give orders for the death of a friend, but let my soldiers beware of stealing a spoon from the enemy or even speaking impolitely to them.’  That is the compensatory logic of it.  But as usual with Shakespeare, the most interesting thing is behind.  Robbing a church!  Had Henry, even in his wildest days, ever broken into a church edifice and stolen a pyx?  There is no record of anything of the sort.  But he had accepted the bribe of a large slice of ecclesiastical property for the purpose of launching his proposed conquest of France.  It makes a difference whether you steal retail or wholesale, and whether you do it openly or slyly, legally or illegally.  The plot and underplot of this play grow more and more mutually illuminating.”



So…what do you all think of the play so far?  Is it patriotic or is Goddard right?  Where does Shakespeare stand?  And whose performance are you enjoying the most?  Share your thoughts, questions, and reactions with the group!


Our next reading:  Henry V, Act Four

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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4 Responses to “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more…”

  1. GGG says:

    Goddard’s comments are illuminating. Henry has taken from the church–by money, or if money is not forthcoming he can always impound the church’s lands. There is the contrast that Goddard points out: the actions of the little man are not judged the same as the actions of the “big” man.

    But in defense of Henry, in times of war or trouble–even when sought out–people do look for a leader. I think that is the appeal of Henry V, not so much looking at the patriotic, but at the political, and recognizing that there is a crucial role for the leader–both by example and by exhortation. Henry speaks to the troops in person; today he would be on the Internet? on the TV? on YouTube? in a presidential debate?

    I can see Henry V as Shakespeare’s examination of leadership–what does it take to get men to go out and fight? (or carrying on in the political vein–to vote for you?)

    And a corollary–Shakespeare’s examination of the power of words to move men and mountains. Aren’t these words still ringing in our ears? “Once more unto the breach” “We band of brothers…” and so on….

  2. THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH!!!!! I just won $200.00 for knowing where the quotes came from and who said them. The other person said Sherlock Holmes. I knew that was not true because Sir A.C. Doyle wrote the Holmes mysteries. I feel 1/2 of my winnings belongs to (as we say in the South) y’all!! Thank you again, RLHartin

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