“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother…”

Henry V

Act Four

By Dennis Abrams


Act Four:  The night before battle, Henry visits his demoralized troops in disguise.  One soldier, named Williams, is challenged by the King for doubting the value of their mission.  In the morning, the English (outnumbered five to one) are gloomily saying farewell to each other when Henry raises their spirits with another inspiring speech.  They head for what seems to be certain death at Agincourt, but the battle unexpectedly (or…expectedly?) turns their way.  As the French are regrouping, the most Christian Henry orders all enemy prisoners to be killed, just before news arrives that the French have murdered the boys guarding the English camp.  Henry’s victory assured, it is confirmed that French casualties have topped 10,000 to just 25 English dead.  The King goes in search of Williams, and reveals his true identity before forgiving him.


But despite Henry’s enthusiasm, some of his soldiers, many of them conscripts, are openly cynical about his gung-ho spirit.  Though the Chorus is, as ever, eager to describe the restorative effect of Henry’s incognito night-time visit to his troops (eagerly promising “a little touch of Harry in the night”), in the event the King’s common touch all but deserts him when he encounters a group of English troops while disguised as an officer.  One, Williams, is not at all impressed by Henry’s unctuous assertion that “me thinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the King’s company, his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.”  Williams, rightfully and angrily retorts:

But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in a battle shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, ‘We died at such a place’ – some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left.  I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle, for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument?  Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it…

William’s fears are reasonable and powerful ones:  not to be allowed to “die well,” and to put one’s earthly and spiritual affairs in order, is a very heavy price to pay for serving an earthly king.  His nightmarish vision of the “latter day” (the day of Judgment), awash with truncated body-parts, provides a strong pacifistic argument.  But his chief worry isn’t even that – it is about the justness of this particular conflict – and it is a question that Henry neatly evades, merely arguing that “the King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers.”  Though the religious justification for Henry’s war in France seemed to have been nearly laid out in the first few scenes of the play, there are jarring notes – among them the fact that the Church is backing it in order to divert attention from a royal inquiry into their coffers.  William’s concerned, audiences in the know may well think back to the dying King’s advice to his son in Henry V’s predecessor, “to busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels.”  So is this a crusade or merely a smokescreen?

Even so, William’s courage is not under question:  the same can’t be said for all of the King’s troops. The men the Chorus optimistically calls “culled and choice-drawn cavaliers” include some of Henry’s erstwhile Eastcheap pals,  Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol – none of whom is distinguished by their bravery.  (And one can only imagine how easily Falstaff would have dismantled the whole idea of the war.)  Though Bardolph is, admittedly, briefly fired up by the King’s speech at Harfleur, echoing, “On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach!,” his exhortation to his comrades falls on stony grounds.  The Boy provides the most astute analysis of all:

Would I were in an alehouse in London.  I would give all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety.

Cowering in their foxhole – a parodic version of esprit de corps – until they are chased out by Captain Fluellen (a Welshman), they represent an England which is rather less patriotic in practice than it might like to believe.

In fact, the story of the Eastcheap soldiers, sordid and unhappy as it is, is a powerful undercurrent to the “official” view of the action as represented by the Chorus and Henry himself.  The kind of vivacious and rambunctious comedy they offered in the Henry IV plays is all but silenced in Henry V, something first noticed by Samuel Johnson, who ruefully commented that “the comic personages are now dismissed.”  Before long Bardolph manages to get himself executed for robbing a church (his death underwritten by the King himself), while Pistol leaves the play as a lone figure, having learned that “my Nell is dead…of a malady of France,” a euphemism for venereal disease which ironically underscores the nature of his own position.  King Henry may have adapted winningly to his changed circumstances, but other characters do not have that luxury.

And if the “mad wag” Hal sunk into the grave with his father’s corpse, the gaping absence of another father figure – one whose body is a good deal larger – still managed to dominate Henry V.  Falstaff dies during the play, but he does so without once making an appearance.  2 Henry IV’s Epilogue promised that “if you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story with Sir John in it,” going on, “where, for anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat – unless already a be killed with your hard opinions.”  Given Falstaff’s instantaneous celebrity on the Elizabethan stage, that last comment must have seemed like a light-hearted quip, and nothing more, to its first hearers.  But Shakespeare turns the joke back on his audiences.  Falstaff’s sordid rejection by his erstwhile companion in the dying moments of Part II turns out, against all expectation, to have been his swansong.  There is little doubt as to what lies behind his death.  As Mistress Quickly tearfully related, “The King has killed his heart.”


Gerald Gould, “A New Reading of Henry V” (1918)

“Shakespeare can scarcely have intended that the force of preconception should, hundreds of years after his death, still be preventing the careful, the learned, and the sympathetic from seeing what he so definitely put down.  The play is ironic.”


From Bloom:

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 Crispin’s day.

That is the King, just before the battle of Agincourt.  He is very stirred; and so are we; but neither we nor he believes a word he says.  The common soldiers fighting with their monarch are not going to become gentlemen, let alone nobles, and ‘the ending of the world’ is a rather grand evocation for an imperialist land grab that did not long survive Henry V’s death, as Shakespeare’s audience knew too well.  Hazlitt, with characteristic eloquence, joins Yeats as the true exegete of Henry V and his play:

‘He was a hero, that is, he was willing to sacrifice his own life for the pleasure of destroying thousands of other lives…How then do we like him?  We like him in the play.  There he is a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant…’

This cannot be bettered, but is that all Prince Hal matured into:  an amiable monster, a splendid pageant?  Yes; for this, Falstaff was rejected, Bardolph was hanged, and a great education in wit was partly thrown away.  Shakespeare’s ironic insight remains highly relevant; power keeps in habit through the ages.  Our nation’s Henry V (some might say) was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who gave us the Bay of Pigs and the enhancement of our Vietnam adventure.  Some scholars may moralize and historicize until they are purple with pride, but they will not persuade us that Shakespeare (playwright and man) preferred his amiable monster to the genius of Falstaff, and his splendid pageant to the varied and vital Henry IV plays.

In Henry V, the two religious caterpillars, Canterbury and Ely, finance the French wars so as to save the Church’s secular estates from royal confiscation, both praise Henry’s piety, and he is careful to tell us how Christian a king he is.  At Agincourt, he prays to God for victory, promising yet more contrite tears for his father’s murder of Richard II, and he then proceeds to order the throats cut of all the French prisoners, a grace duly performed.  Some recent attention has been devoted to this slaughter, but it will not alter Henry V’s popularity with both scholars and moviegoers.  Henry is brutally shrewd and shrewdly brutal, qualities necessary for his greatness as a king.   The historical Henry V, dead at thirty-five, was an enormous success in power and war, and undoubtedly was the strongest English king before Henry VIII.  Shakespeare has no single attitude toward Henry V, in the play, which allows you to achieve your own perspective upon the rejecter of Falstaff.  My stance I derive from Yeats, whose views on Shakespeare and the state deliciously share little with old-style scholarly idealists and new-wave cultural materialists:

‘Shakespeare cared little for the State, the source of all our judgments, apart from its shows and splendors, its turmoils and battles, its flamings-out of the uncivilized heart.’

When Shakespeare thought of the state, he remembered first that it had murdered Christopher Marlowe, tortured and broken Thomas Kyd, and branded the unbreakable Ben Jonson.  All that and more underlies the great lament in Sonnet 66:

And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,

And strength by limping sway disabled

And art made tongue-tied authority.

The censor, external and internal, haunted Shakespeare, made cautious by Marlowe’s terrible end.  I agree, therefore, with Yeats’ conclusion, which is that Henry V, for all its exuberance, is essentially ironic:

‘Shakespeare watched Henry V not indeed as he watched the greater souls in the visionary procession, but cheerfully, as one watches some handsome spirited horse, and he spoke his tale, as he spoke all tales, with tragic irony.’

It is so much Henry V’s play that the irony is not immediately evident:  there is no substantial role for anyone except the warrior-king.  Falstaff’s death, narrated by Mistress Quickly, does not bring that great spirit upon stage, and ancient Pistol is only a shadow of his leader.  Fluellen, the other comic turn, is a fine characterization but limited, except perhaps where Shakespeare slyly employs the Welsh captain to give us a properly ironic analogue for the rejection of Falstaff:


I think it is in Macedon where Alexander is porn.  I tell you, captain, if you look in the maps of the ‘orld, I warrant you sall find, in the comparisons between Macedon and Monmouth, that the situations, look you, is both alike.  There is a river in Macedon, and there is also moreover a river in Monmouth:  it is called Wye at Monmouth; but it is out of my prains what is the name of the other river; but ‘tis all one, ‘tis alike as my fingers is to my fingers, and there is salmons in both.  If you mark Alexander’s life well, Harry of Monmouth’s life is come after it indifferent well; for there is figures in all things.  Alexander, God knows, and you know, in his rages, and his furies, and his wraths, and his cholers, and his moods, and his displeasures, and his indignations, and also being a little intoxicates in his prains, did, in his ales and angers, look you, kill his best friend, Cleitus.


Our King is not like him in that; he never killed any of his friends.


It is not well done, mark you, to take the tales out of my mouth, ere it is made and finished.  I speak but in the figures and comparisons of it:  as Alexander killed his friend Cleitus, being in his ales and his cups, so also Harry Monmouth, being in his wits and his good judgments, turned away the fat knight with the great-belly doublet:  he was full of jests, and gipes, and knaveries, and mocks; I have forgot his name.


Sir John Falstaff.

The drunken Alexander murdered his good friend Cleitus; Shakespeare ironically reminds us that Hal, ‘being in his right wits and his good judgments,’ ‘killed’ his best friend, the man ‘full of jests, and gipes, and knaveries, and mocks.’  One great conqueror or ‘pig’ is like another, as Fluellen argues.  Henry V certainly is not Falstaff’s play; it belongs to ‘this star of England,’ whose sword was made by Fortune.  Yet its ironies are palpable and frequent, and transcend my own fierce Falstaffianism.  Urging his troops into the breach at Harfleur, King Henry had extolled their fathers as ‘so many Alexanders.’  Distancing is not so much bewildering in Henry V as it is suave and beguiling.  Henry V is an admirable politician, a brave basher of heads in battle, a peerless charismatic.  With Shakespeare we are delighted by him, and with Shakespeare we are rather chilled also, but carefully so; we are not estranged from Falstaff’s brilliant pupil.  In some ways, King Henry’s hypocrisy is more acceptable than Prince Hal’s, since the warrior-king is in no way a clean and clever lad doing his best to get on.  Henry V has England and the English, captures France and its princess, if not the French, and will die young like Alexander, another conqueror with little left to conquer.  Personal fidelities are shrugged off by so ideal a monarch; Bardolph hangs, and perhaps Falstaff would too, had Shakespeare risked that comic splendor on the French expedition.  Something in u s, attending or reading Henry V, is carefully rendered beyond care.

Henry is given to lamenting that as king he is not free, yet the former Hal is himself a considerable ironist, and has learned one of Falstaff’s most useful lessons:  Keep your freedom by seeing through every idea of order and code of behavior, whether chivalrous or moral or religious.  Shakespeare does not let us locate Hal/Henry V’s true self; a king is necessarily something of a counterfeit, and Henry is a great king.  Hamlet, infinitely complex, becomes a different role with each strong performer.  Henry V is veiled rather than complex, but the pragmatic consequence is that no actor resembles another in the part.  Henry V or What You Will might as well be the play’s title.  Shakespeare sees to it that even the most pungent ironies cannot resist the stance of the chorus, who adores ‘the warlike Henry,’ truly the model or ‘mirror of all Christian kings.’  Even if you wanted to hear duplicity in that, the chorus will charm you wit:  ‘A little touch of Harry in the night.’

Shakespeare need not remind us that Falstaff, vastly intelligent and witty beyond all measure, was desperately in love with Hal.  No one could fall in love with Henry V, but no one altogether could resist him either.  If he is a monster, he is more than amiable.  He is a great Shakespearean personality – hardly a Hamlet or a Falstaff, but more than a Hotspur.  Henry V has the glamour of an Alexander who has staked everything upon one military enterprise, but this is an Alexander endowed with inwardness, keenly exploited for its pragmatic advantages.  In Henry’s vision, the growing inner self requires an expanding kingdom, and France is the designated realm for growth.  Henry IV’s guilt of usurpation and regicide is to be expiated by the conquest, and the exploitation and rejection of Falstaff is to be enhanced by a new sense of the glory of Mars and kingship.  The transcended fathers fade away in the dazzle of royal apotheosis.  Ironies persist, but what are ironies in so flamboyant a pageant?  More than Shakespeare’s heart was with Falstaff, Falstaff is mind, while Henry is but policy.  Yet policy makes for a superb pageant, and something in every one of us responds to the joyousness of Henry V.  Militarism, brutality, pious hypocrisy all are outshone by England’s charismatic hero-king.  This is all to the good for the play, and Shakespeare sees to it that we will remember his play’s limit.”


From Goddard:

The fourth act of Henry V is dedicated to the Battle of Agincourt and what preceded it.  the last scene of the previous act supplies the foil.  In it we catch a glimpse of the French camp the night before the battle, with its mingled frivolity, light conversation about horses, mistresses, and sonnets, and wishes for the dawn of the morning that will summon them to the easy extinction of the English.  It is all like some hopelessly overconfident university football squad contemptuous of the team of a backwoods college that by some freak of nature they have been compelled to condescend to play.

And then, with the new act, the scene shifts to the English camp on the same night and we have one of the most dramatic and symbolic scenes that Shakespeare, up to that time, had conceived.

The King wraps himself in a borrowed cloak, and, Hauroun-al-Raschid-like, mingles incognito with the common soldiers.  And forthwith, a miracle!  His royal habliments hidden, Henry is at first almost the old Hal with whom we were formerly acquainted.  The man had had to disguise himself to become a king; now the king must disguise himself to become a man.  Wrapped in the double obscurity of his cloak and of night, he engages in conversation three of his soldiers, John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams.   Their Christian names, in each case, I think, are intended to have significance, and in the case of Court the surname certainly does, for his first speech in the play turns out to be his last, possible, in proportion to its length, as remarkable a role as is to be found in Shakespeare.

‘Brother John Bates,’ he says, ‘is not that morning which breaks yonder?  Just eleven words – and the rest is silence.  But those words let us into the secret thoughts of a man who never expects to see another dawn, and in his silence we hear his heartbeats.  We hear them to the end of the scene – of the act – of the play.  Did he fall in the battle?  We never know.  Even Shakespeare seldom packed so much into so little.  Put the one word ‘brother’ over against its plural ‘brothers’ as used by Henry.  Put all eleven words – with the silence that follows them – over against the speech of the Constable of France that opens the previous scene:  ‘Tut!  I have the best armour of the world.  Would it were day!’ with the loquacity that follows it, and it is scarcely too much to say that in the two we have the reason why, in this play at any rate, the English won the Battle of Agincourt.  ‘When matched armies encounter,’ says Lao Tse, ‘the one instinct with sadness conquers.’  Bates and Williams are filled with dark forebodings, but they are at least able to speak.  All three of them are plainly men of sincerity and worth.  Somehow Shakespeare convinces us that it is of this stuff that England is made.  The three men evoke a responsive sincerity from Henry.  ‘I think the king is but a man,’ he says – in words that are a clear echo of Shylock’s memorable words on a similar theme – and we can feel the relief with which in the darkness he puts aside not merely the trappings but the very accent of state.  ‘A little touch of Harry in the night.’  Like the others, significantly, he speaks in prose.

This is the scene widely relied on by Henry’s admirers to prove his simplicity, his modesty, his democracy.  If only this were Henry!  Those who think it is forget that it is night.  This is the suppressed Henry.  Which is real? the old man who lies in bed and remembers his youth or the youth the old man lies in bed and remembers?  If only we were what we lie awake in the night and wish we were!  It is what a man makes of himself in the daylight that he is.  One might as well go to the soliloquy on sleep to find Henry IV as to this scene to find Henry V.  The father poured forth the unrealized poetry and hidden regrets of his life in that magnificent apostrophe.  Nocturnal history is repeating itself – with certain differences.  Our daytime personality, though in the background, is always there along with our three-o’clock-in-the-morning one.  The King lay in bed with the man who uttered the address to sleep.  And the King is present in this scene as well as the ghost of Hal.  In coming to the defense of the King, Hal begins to pass back into him.


He may show what outward courage he will, but I believe, as cold a night as ‘tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck, and so I would he were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here.

[‘I would it were bed-time, Hal, and all well,’ said Falstaff the night before Shrewsbury.]


By my troth, I will speak my conscience of the king:  I think he would not wish himself any where but where he is.


Then I would he were here alone; so should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men’s lives saved.


I dare say you love him not so ill to wish him here alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other man’s minds.  Methinks I could not day any where so contented as in the king’s company.

and then, as if Bates’ words had revived some old doubt, the ghost of Hal adds, ‘his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.’

‘That’s more than we know,’ says Williams.

Bates assuages his conscience with the thought that, even if the King’s cause is bad, the soldier’s obedience wipes out the crime of it for him.

But the more assertive Williams turns it the other way around and points out how heavy in that case is the responsibility of the king.


But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died in such a place’; some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind then, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left.  I am afeard there are few die well that die in battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument?  Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

It is an unanswerable argument.  And it does not have a familiar ring?  It should have.  For it is the precise argument that Henry himself used when he told the Archbishop of Canterbury that it would be a black matter for him, the Archbishop, if he incited him, the King, to a bad war:

We charge you in the name of God, take heed;

For never two such kingdoms did contend

Without much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops

Are every one a woe, a sore complaint

‘Gainst him whose wrongs give edge unto the swords

That make such waste in brief mortality.

The king was willing to put the responsibility on an archbishop but he is unwilling to let his soldiers put the responsibility on a king.  As in the case of the three traitors, Henry is caught in his own trap.  The King gives no sign that he remembers his former words, but if any proof were needed that he knows in heart of hearts that this is a bad war we have it in the squirming sophistry – almost worthy of a Pandulph – with which he vainly attempts to refute the simple and straightforward statement of Williams.

‘So, if a son that is by his father sent some merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea,’ reasons Henry, ‘the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon his father that sent him.’  Was ever logic more topsy-turvy?  Henry has it exactly upside down.  What he should have said, to parallel Williams’ argument, is:  ‘If a merchant send his son forth with orders to cheat, the father, by your rule, should bear the blame if his son is dishonest.’  And that would have been true!  ‘Besides,’ Henry goes on, still further side-stepping the issue and forgetting that the question is the justice of the war, not the morals of the soldiers, ‘there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers.  Some peradventure have on them the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder; some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with pillage and robbery.  Now, if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God.  War is his beadle, war is his vengeance.’

It would be both cruel and repetitious to examine these sentences in the light of Henry’s unlicensed youth and his parentally instigated, deliberately contrived, casuistically and ecclesiastically supported movies for the war in which he is engaged.

‘I myself heard the king say he would not be ransomed,’ says Henry, confessing thereby that his argument needs backing up with something more solid.

‘Ay, he said so, to make us fight cheerfully,’ says the penetrating Williams, ‘but when our throats are cut, he may be ransomed, and we ne’er the wiser.’  (Falstaff in his speech on honor said something close to this, if in a different key.)  ‘If I live to see it,’ says Henry, shifting to wit – the defeated man’s only alternative to anger – ‘I will never trust his word after.’

‘You’ll never trust his word after! come, ‘tis a foolish saying.’

It was, as Henry as good as admits in his reply.

‘Your reproof is something too round.  I should be angry with you, if the time were convenient.’  He is shifting to the other alternative.

Whereat Williams takes him up.  They changed gloves and their words of honor to settle their quarrel after the battle.  Henry declares that he will challenge him ‘though I take thee in the king’s company,’ a wording of promise to be especially noted in view of what happens later.  Meanwhile Bates exclaims, precisely as Bardolph had exclaimed to the pugnacious Nym and Pistol:  ‘Be friends, you English fools, be friends; we have French quarrels enow, if you could tell how to reckon.’  And a moment later the three soldiers go out.

Though he has been compelled to revert to his assumed self in his argument in defense of the King, the genuineness of these common men has affected Henry profoundly, and, left alone, he breaks forth, as man, not king, into the soliloquy on Ceremony – the counterpart of his father’s on Sleep and of his son’s on the Simple Life – which shows how his soul loathes the burden of monarchial make-believe under which the man is all but interred:

O ceremony…

Art thou aught else but place, degree, and form,

Creating awe and fear in other men?

Wherein thou art less happy being fear’d

What drink’st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,

But poison’d flattery?  O, be sick, great greatness,

And bid thy ceremony give thee cure!

Thinkst thou the fiery fever will go out

With titles blown from adulation?

The contempt with which he turns on ‘the farced title running “fore the king,’” indicates how far he is at this moment of soul-revelation from the ambitious boy who put the crown on his head when his father was dying, or the leader who urged his soldiers to imitate the action of the tiger.  He is closer, indeed, as the rest of his speech with its envious references to those of low degree shows, to the spirit of his son-to-be Henry VI.  And every word of it is as straightforward and true as his argument with Williams was twisted and false.  Is it any wonder that those who want to make out that Henry was the ideal king always appeal to this passage?  If only good thoughts could be credited as good deeds!

Word comes that the lords and nobles are searching for the missing King.  He asks for only a moment more of solitude, and, granted it, falls on his knees (or so we suppose) and pours forth his anguish, and sense of guilt, in a prayer:

O God of battles! steel my soldiers’ hearts;

Possess them not with fear; take from them now

The sense of reckoning, if the opposed numbers

Pluck their hearts from them.  Not to-day, O Lord,

O, not to-day, think not upon the fault

My father made in compassing the crown!

I Richard’s body have interr’d anew,

And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears

Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,

Who twice a day their wither’d hands hold up

Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built

Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests

Sing still for Richard’s soul.  More will I do;

Though all that I can do is nothing worth,

Since that my penitence comes after all,

Imploring pardon.

‘The sins of the fathers!’  So false have Henry IV’s dying words been proved when he said that all the ‘soil’ of Richard’s murder would go with him into the grave, leaving his son with an unspotted title.  Those two chantries and those five hundred poor are convincing testimony to the contrary.  Indeed, as we read those last lines our memories are haunted with a sense of familiarity.

     All that I can do is nothing worth,

Since that my penitence comes after all,

Imploring pardon.

Where have we heard something like that before?

That cannot be; since I am still possess’d

Of those efforts for which I did the mu7rder,

My crown, my own ambition, and my queen

May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?

Shakespeare, to be sure, had not yet written those words, but it is precisely poetry’s function to put us above time.

Yes, another guilty king, kneeling in prayer – and the same inevitable question:  was he sincere?  And the same inevitable answer:  yes, and no.  Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle.

What!  the ideal king and the murderer-adulterer in the same attitude, uttering the same thoughts?  There are important differences, certainly.  It was the father, not the son, who was personally guilty of the crime in the present case.  But the central fact of a throne founded on murder is the same.  The parallelism is so startling that the familiar passage takes on a fresh meaning in its new context:

In the corrupted currents of this world

Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,

And oft ‘tis seen the wicked prize itself

Buys out the law.  But ‘tis not so above:

There is no shuffling, there the action lies

In his true nature; and we ourselves compell’d,

Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,

To give in evidence.  What then?  What rests?

Try what repentance can.  What can is not?

Yet what can it when one can not repent?

Shakespeare finds the right word.  Shuffling!



I’ll continue with Goddard’s analysis of Act Four, including, of course, Agincourt, in my next post, Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.

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