Classics · Shakespeare

Henry V Acts IV-V

I’m not sure what Henry expected to find when he went walking around the camp disguised as a common soldier. That all his men were totally loyal and believed in his cause as much as he did? Right. The scene was surprisingly realistic, though: his soldiers don’t know or care whether his cause is just, and will fight because their monarch commands them to, but would rather be safe at home.

How much influence does that knowledge have on Henry’s speech before the battle? A lot, I think. When he says, “He which hath no stomach to his fight, let him depart … We would not die in that man’s company that fears his fellowship to die with us”, he’s basically daring anyone who’s afraid or reluctant to leave. And when he speaks of those in England who “shall think themselves accursed they were not here”, he’s giving them a reason to stay and fight: for the honor of being part of the king’s “band of brothers”. He’s an expert at motivating people, and I wonder if – as disappointed as he seemed to be to learn his soldiers weren’t all invested in his cause – he was also looking for what he could say to ensure they’d put everything they had into the battle.

You really have to be able to understand French in order to understand this play. The French characters so often switch between French and English, and even the English characters sometimes speak very broken French. On top of that, and the all-French scene in Act III (where at least nothing important happens), the final scene has King Henry attempting to court the French princess, neither one speaking the other’s language very well. I was able to follow the French dialogue pretty easily, but I was a French major in college. Your average monolingual Anglophone would end up checking the endnotes for a translation every few lines, or just skipping over those parts entirely. Which begs the question: would Shakespeare’s original audience have spoken French? And why include so much of it?

I think he must have been trying to emphasize the language barrier. A big part of the play is the clash of two nations, which shows itself in the contrasting characters, and of course the literal battles, as well as the many scenes when characters struggle to understand each other’s words. In a way, the French and English languages could even be seen as a symbol of the two countries’ differences, and therefore, the final scene as a rocky attempt at peace in which the two royals struggle to understand each other but come to an agreement.

In that scene, King Henry talks about loving Princess Katherine, but how can he? He’s only just met her, and they can barely make themselves understood to each other. Sure, she’s beautiful, and love at first sight is nothing unusual for Shakespeare, but this is hardly Romeo and Juliet. It’s a political marriage. It’s nice that Henry tries to win her heart instead of just demanding she marry him, but still. Their marriage will strengthen Henry’s claim to France. It’s not just a lovestruck whim, and behind this – as with everything else – there’s an expert chess-player thinking several moves ahead.

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