“If Shakespeare had deliberately set out to deglorify the Battle of Agincourt and King Henry in particular it would seem if he could hardly have done more.”

Henry V

Act Four, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


I’d like to continue our look at Act Four of Henry V with Harold Goddard’s in-depth look at the Battle of Agincourt.

I realize that my posts have emphasized a rather non-traditional reading of the play, ignoring the obvious patriotism for what I think is the less obvious darkness underlying the jingoism – but since the surface is so…obvious, and the film versions illustrate (and perhaps rightly so) the more heroic aspects of the play, I think this alternative view needs to looked into more deeply.


From Goddard:

“Agincourt!  ‘It was a famous victory.’  Five scenes are dedicated to the battle.

In the first one we see Pistol capturing a French soldier (‘a gentleman of a good house’) and agreeing to spare his life for a ransom of two hundred crowns.  The frequency with which, after Henry has indulged in boasting, Shakespeare introduces Pistol in the next scene grows increasingly suspicious.  This one is obviously food for the groundlings.  But is it only that?  If Pistol, that brief extract and chronicle of all the cowards who ever cringed before nothing, can capture a French gentleman (in a scene that, by the way, reads like a parody of Falstaff’s capture of Colville), pass himself off as ‘the most brave, valorous, and thrice-worthy signieur of England,” and extort from him two hundred crowns, what, one wonders, will soldiers like Court and Williams and officers like Fluellen not be able to do?  We have noted that the French were frivolous and overconfident.  But Pistol!  His exploit helps explain the inexplicable victory.

The second battle is but a few lines long and gives us a glimpse of the shame of the French at being worsted by the weaklings and slaves they had just been playing dice for:

Shame, and eternal shame, nothing but shame!

The third scene shows Henry receiving word of the deaths of the Duke of York, who led the van, and the Earl of Suffolk. Exeter, who brings the report, draws a pathetic picture of their final moments, and declares that on the field he wept at the sight.  ‘I blame you not,’ says Henry,

For, hearing this, I must perforce compound

With mistful eyes, or they will issue too.

Why should Shakespeare give nearly a whole scene to the deaths of two men who have played practically no part in the story?  For the sake of the battle atmosphere, it will be said.  But Shakespeare generally subordinates his picturesque effects to drama.  And so he does here.  The last four lines of the scene reveal why the first thirty-four were written.  An alarum sounds, and the King cries:

But hark!  what new alarum is this same?

The French have reinforc’d their scatter’d men:

Then every soldier kill his prisoners!

Give the word through.

From tears to orders for the death of the prisoners – all in a second.  The complete presence of mind of a great field commander!  But we recall the King’s directions to his troops, just after he sent Bardolph to his death, which ended:  ‘when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.’  Then he followed a cruel act by gentle words.  Now he follows tearful words by a cruel act.  These sudden polar reversals are too characteristic of Henry to be attributed at bottom to anything but his own nature.  but perhaps in this case the killing of the prisoners was ‘necessary,’ it may be suggested.  Shakespeare does not make us wait long for more evidence on that point.

The fourth battle scene seems to digress even further.  Yet is one of the best illustrations in all the author’s works of the rule that the more casual and incidental one of his scenes appears to be, the more significant and casual it often is.  What this one appears to be is just a bit of conversation between Fluellen and Gower, two of the King’s officers, precipitated by the killing of the prisoners.  What it is, if I am not mistaken, I s nothing less than Shakespeare’s last judgment on the rejection of Falstaff.

Gower and Fluellen, the Welsh officer who is forever quoting the military precedents of the Greeks and Romans, imply that the killing of the prisoners is an act of retaliation because French stragglers killed the English boys guarding the luggage.  But the previous scene proves this is not the case.  Gower suggests the additional motive of personal revenge:  ‘besides, they have burned and carried away all that was in the king’s tent; wherefore the king, most worthily, hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner’s throat.  O, ‘tis a gallant king!’  Do not suppose for a moment that Gower is ironical, however sarcastic those last words sound.

‘Ay,’ says Fluellen, taking up the reference to the King’s gallantry, ‘he was porn at Monmouth, Captain Gower.  What call you the town’s name where Alexander the Pig was born?’

‘Alexander the Great,’ Gower returns, not relishing Fluellen’s Welsh English.  But Fluellen will not accept the correction:

‘Why, I pray you, is not a pig great?  The pig, or the great, or the mighty, or the huge, or the magnanimous, are all one reckonings, save the phrase is a little variations.’

‘I think Alexander the Great was born in Macedon,’ says Gower, coming back to Fluellen’s inquiry.

Whereupon Fluellen, taking up the alliteration of Monmouth and Macedon, proceeds to draw a parallel – how deadly, not Fluellen but only the attentive reader realizes – between Harry of Monmouth and Alexander the Pig of Macedon.  That ‘Pig,’ of course, must have delighted the groundlings.  But there is more to it than that.  For consider:  Alexander the Great has become the symbol for all time of insatiable lust for blood and conquest.  ‘No more lands to conquer.’  The allusion in itself, in a play whose theme is imperialism, would be suspicious.  Henry is bent on the subjection of France by force.  Once upon a time he had admonished Falstaff to ‘leave gormandizing.’  But that was long ago.  The parallel between Henry and Alexander, Shakespeare more than hints (and now we see the reason for Court’s first name), goes considerably beyond the fact that the places where they were born both begin with the same letter.  Even Fluellen sees that much, innocent he is of the deeper import of what he is saying:

There is a river in Macedon; and there is also moreover a river at 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,

and he goes on to draw a parallel between Alexander’s killing, when drunk, of his best friend Cleitus, and Henry’s rejection of Falstaff.  (Like the soul of Banquo, Falstaff will not down.)

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.


That is he:  I’ll tell you there is goot men porn at Monmouth.


Here comes his majesty.

And King Henry enters.

“’There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.’  ENTER MACBETH.”  Henry’s entrance is like that, casting back a reversed significance over the scene that has gone before.

Fluellen, in comparing Henry and Alexander, has pointed out one incidental contrast:  that whereas Alexander ‘in his ales and his angers’ murdered Cleitus, Harry ‘in his right wits and his good judgments’ turned against Falstaff.  But was the King, whether angry or not, in his right wits and good judgments at that fatal moment?  That is the debated point.  And now, as if in living answer to the question, Henry enters with the words:

I was not angry since I came to France

Until this instant.

And he commands a herald to ride up to certain horsemen on the hill that ‘offend’ his sight and order them either to come down and fight, or to quit the battle, under the threat of being hurled to death.  And he adds:

Besides we’ll cut the throats of those we have,

And not a man of them that we shall take

Shall taste our mercy.  Go and tell them so.

Fluellen’s parallel is more pitiless than he realized. Alexander the Pig himself could hardly have been more magnificently angry than Henry is at this moment.  It is one thing to kill prisoners in an emergency, or through ‘necessity.’  It is another to kill them on principle – and to promise to kill those not yet taken.  Henry is drunk with wrath.  How venial Falstaff’s addiction to sack compared with this intoxication!  Henry’s father had warned us of this weakness of his son:

     give him line and scope,

Till that his passions, like a whale on ground,

Confound themselves with working,

and we remember Henry’s reproach against the three traitors who seemed, but were not,

Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger.

Thus, unobtrusively, near the end of another play, does Shakespeare slip quietly in his own comment on the rejection of Falstaff.  For what else can it be?  What other purpose has the scene?  And how it confirms what went before! – the rehearsal of the rejection in the tavern; the rejection itself on the street; and now this reversion to it on the battlefield, when we see it in true perspective.  Shakespeare ‘manifests no disapproval,’ says George Brandes, ‘where the King sinks far below the ideal, as when he orders the frightful massacre of all the French prisoners taken at Agincourt.  Shakespeare tries to pass the deed off as a measure of necessity.’  Brandes has just remarked in the previous paragraph:  ‘Shakespeare was evidently unconscious of the naivete of the lecture on the Salic law.’  But possibly the poet is less guilty of casuistry in the one case, and naïveté in the other, than Brandes thinks.

A French herald who, the last time he left the English camp, had said,

Thou never shalt hear herald any more,

enters, granting the French defeat and begging an opportunity to bury their dead and separate the corpses of the nobles from those of peasants and mercenaries to which they lie disgracefully close.  Henry grants the request, gives its battle its name from the neighboring castle of Agincourt, and around memories of Crecy and the Black Prince, of St. Crispin and St. ‘Tavy,’ he and Fluellen felicitate each other over their Welsh blood:  ‘By Jeshu, I am your majesty’s countryman, I care not who knew it; I will confess it to all the ‘world:  I need not to be ashamed of your majesty, praised to be God, so long as your majesty is an honest man.’

God keep me so!

says Henry.

It takes less time than that between Peter’s profession and the crowing of the cock to prove that Henry, judged by the chivalric code that he professes, is not an honest man, or, if you will, that God does not keep him so.

Henry espies his own glove in the cap of Williams. ‘Soldier, why wearest thou that glove in thy cap?’  And Williams explains the mutual challenge exchanged between him and the ‘swaggering rascal’ of the night before and his promise to strike his own glove from the other’s cap when he finds it.

‘What think you,’ says Henry, turning to Fluellen, ‘is it fit this soldier keep his oath?’

‘He is a craven and a villain else.’

But maybe his unknown opponent is of higher degree than he, Henry suggests.

That makes no difference, says Fluellen, though he be as good a gentleman as the devil himself, as Lucifer, or Belzebub, he must keep his oath.  Evidently, to Fluellen fidelity or infidelity to an oath is not a mere matter of rank.

In that case, how about the King’s oath?

He swore, when in disguise, to challenge his glove in his opponent’s cap and to meet him in personal combat to defend his idea of where the guilt lies as between a sovereign and his soldiers in war.  ‘If ever I live to see it I will challenge it,’ were his words. ‘I will do it,’ he added, ‘though I take thee in the king’s company.’  Indeed Henry now admits quite casually to Warwick that he made this promise.  He had given Fluellen Williams’ glove – he tells Warwick after Fluellen has gone out – inventing a false account of where he got it and bidding Fluellen wear it in his cap.

It is the soldier’s; I by bargain should

Wear it myself

BARGAIN!  It is a bourgeois word.  Henry has pawned his honor – supposedly a noble word.  But what is the word of honor of a king when given to a commoner?  Thus does Shakespeare demonstrate how long it takes after the battle – half an hour? – for Henry’s protestations of democracy and equality before the battle to evaporate:

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.

The victory is won; it is daylight now, not night; and the King is no longer disguised – or should we say he is again disguised?  All these things make a difference.  Williams is neither brother nor gentleman, but just a commoner.  ‘Such is the breath of kings.’  It all has a subtle allusiveness on another plane to Jon of Lancaster’s broken oath.

In the last of what I have loosely called the battle scenes, Warwick and Gloucester, who are in the secret, and then Henry himself, intervene just in time to prevent a combat between Fluellen and Williams, who, true to his word, has struck the Welshman on perceiving his glove in his cap.  The King reveals the identity of the ‘swaggering rascal:’

It was ourself thou didst abuse.

The announcement does not abash or embarrass Williams.  He stands his ground like a man.  If the King is unwilling, or, if anyone insists, unable, to meet Williams in bodily encounter, nemesis contrives to bring them together in spiritual combat.  And again by day, as in their argument before by night, it is the king rather than the man who comes off second best.

The brief scene between the two gives us Shakespeare near the top of his ironic power.  It is a little drama complete in itself.  Its theme is:  Which is greater, a man or a king?  And one need not go beyond it to find an answer to that everlasting question:  Was Shakespeare a democrat?  Democrat in any dogmatic or narrowly political sense of course he was not.  But in the wider and deeper sense in which we speak of Lincoln as a supreme democrat – well, let the scene itself decide:

Henry:  It was ourself thou didst abuse.

Williams:  Your majesty came not like yourself:  you appeared to me as a common man; witness the night, your garments, your lowliness; and what your highness suffered under that shape, I beseech you take it for your own fault and not mine:  for had you been as I took you for, I made no offence; therefore, I beseech your highness, pardon me.


Here, uncle Exeter, to fill this glove with crowns,

And give it to this fellow.  Keep it, fellow;

And wear it for an honour in thy cap

Till I do challenge it.  Give him the crowns:

And, captain, you must needs be friends with him.

Fluellen:  By this day and this light, the fellow has mettle enough in his belly.  Hold, there is twelve pence for you; and I pray you to serve God, and keep you out of prawls, and prabbles, and quarrels, and dissensions, and, I warrant you, it is the better for you.

Williams:  I will none of your money.

Fluellen:  It is with a good will; I can tell you, it will serve you to mend your shoes:  come, wherefore should you be so pashful?  your shoes is not so good:   ‘tis a good shilling, I warrant you, or I will change it.

The King compounds his honor for crowns – just as his father had for an English crown, and as he himself had even now been doing for a French one.  The man whose shoes need mending will not touch so much as a penny.  Here is what honor in another and higher sense means to a simple citizen.  Here is one other man who, like the Chief Justice at the other end of the social scale, can spurn Faulconbridge’s devil, Commodity.  Here is a man who has no price.  Falstaff would have failed, or rather never would have tried, to make fun of honor in this sense.  And the best of it is that Williams (unlike Henry) does not so much as mention the word.  He deals in the thing itself.  ‘No longer consider what sort of man the good man out to be,’ says Marcus Aurelius, ‘but be that man.’

A herald enters and the King inquires:  ‘Are the dead number’d?’  ‘Here is the number of the slaughter’d French,’ the herald replies, and delivers papers showing that ten thousand French have been slain and twenty-nine English.  No, not twenty-nine thousand, nor twenty-nine hundred.  Twenty-nine!  A battle?  Call it rather, according to your point of view, a massacre or a miracle.  And the disparity is even more startling in another respect.  Henry takes particular satisfaction in the fact that most of the French dead are of high estate:

    In these ten thousand they have lost,

There are but sixteen hundred mercenaries;

The rest are princes, barons, lords, knights, squires,

And gentlemen of blood and quality,

and he reads the names of the noblest of them.  (Shakespeare can make even a list of proper nouns significant.)  But for the English it turns out that they have lost one duke, one earl, one baronet, and one esquire.  Among those of ‘blood and quality,’ then, the proportion is somewhat more than eighty-four hundred French to four English!  The inference seems inescapable that it must have been the English commoners who accounted for a large number of the French knights and nobles.  Henry should have been grateful surely to the rank and file.  Was he?  This is the way he announces it:

Where is the number of our English dead?

Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk,

Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gann, esquire:

But five and twenty.

‘Be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition.’  ‘None else of name.’  Again, it makes a difference whether it is before or after the battle.  And instead of expressing gratitude to the Bateses and Courts and  Williamses of his army of yeoman, Henry characteristically attributes his triumph wholly to God and within the space of a little more than a dozen lines declares:

O God!  thy arm was here.

Take it, God,

For it is none but thine!

And be it death proclaimed through our host

To boast of this or take the praise from God

Which is his only.

God fought for us.

And he orders that Non nobis and Te Deum be sung.

We have no quarrel with Henry’s gratitude to heaven for a victory that must indeed have seemed to him like a miracle, but his reiteration of it becomes psychologically suspicious in the highest degree.  It ends by looking less like giving thanks to God for the victory than like putting the responsibility on God.  We recall those two chantries and those five hundred poor.  Like his father with his crusade to Jerusalem, Henry is haunted by the specter of Richard II.  For him, too, the wheel is coming full circle, and in license in bringing God into military matters he comes perilously close to talking like the Richard who placed his faith in celestial armies.  ‘So Christ save me, I will cut off your head.’  Anybody can get the irony of that.  Henry’s confusion of Mars with the Christian God is of the same order.  Any one of his references to God of Battles with which this play is filled is a trifle.  In the aggregate they become an avalanche.

And so is brought to a close the story of Agincourt.  Anyone fresh from a reading of it thinks the fourth act of this play gives the picture of a dashing hero leading his little army with indomitable courage, physical and moral, to victory over a foe overwhelmingly superior in numbers.  But if asked for the evidence of Henry’s part in the battle he searches the text in vain.  He has carries over his impression from the Choruses, from Henry’s ‘tiger’ speech to his soldiers, from previous indirect knowledge of the hero-king from history of second  hand accounts of this very play, or, if he has seen it on the stage, from the unwarranted interpolations of some stage director.  (That there were such interpolations in the poet’s own day is entirely probable.)   Shakespeare has portrayed many battles and shown many military leaders in combat, but not King Henry V in the Battle of Agincourt.

The magician makes us see things that are not there.  Shakespeare does something similar to the imagination of the man who finds the heroism of Henry in the five scenes devoted to this battle, which, in the interest of the facts, may be summarized as follows:

1.  Pistol captures a French gentleman.

2.  The French lament their everlasting shame at being worsted by slaves.

3.  Henry weeps at the deaths of York and Suffolk and orders every soldier to kill his prisoners.

4.  Fluellen compares Henry with Alexander and his rejection of Falstaff to the murder of Cleitus.  Henry, entering angry, swears that every French prisoner, present and future, shall have his throat cut…The battle is over.  The King prays God to keep him honest and breaks his word of honor to Williams.

5.  Henry offers Williams money by way of satisfaction, which Williams rejects.  Word is brought that 10,000 French are slain and 29 English.  Henry gives the victory to God.

If Shakespeare had deliberately set out to deglorify the Battle of Agincourt and King Henry in particular it would seem if he could hardly have done more.”



The battlefield today.

This is great:  four different versions of the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech:



Our next reading:  Henry V, Act Five

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning


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1 Response to “If Shakespeare had deliberately set out to deglorify the Battle of Agincourt and King Henry in particular it would seem if he could hardly have done more.”

  1. Gerald says:

    War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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