By John Stone
‘…the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place’.
This article is intended as a piece of literary criticism, however it also poses questions about the legitimacy of the political order which resonate today. It is an interesting question how - in what is now called the early modern period - an ordinary subject could challenge a monarch (and by implication the order for which the monarch stood). But supposing two men were in disguise, they might briefly exchange ideas on a level playing field. The confrontation between Henry V before Agincourt and the common soldier, Williams, in the play Henry V has occasionally been recognised as a crux, notably by leading Shakespeare scholar Frank Kermode in his brief discussion of the play in his late book The Age of Shakespeare (2004 p.81):
Here is one of the moments when Shakespeare can make us feel out of our depth: the part of surly the Williams is so strongly written, his arguments so persuasive compared with Henry’s, that we are left querying our assent to the royal cause, however warmly solicited.
It was unusual feature of Shakespeare’s career as a playwright of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age that he was also an actor within the company he was writing for. Scholars generally believed he took smaller roles, and it is against this background that the following suggestion is made.
The night before the battle of Agincourt, in the play, King Henry borrows the cloak of company commander Sir Thomas Erpingham indicating that he seeks anonymity and solitude, but perhaps with the real intention (as it follows in the action) of eavesdropping unrecognised on his men. He first runs into his former low-life acquaintance Pistol who fails to recognise the king even when Henry all but identifies himself as “Harry Le Roy”, and is presumably gratified that Pistol speaks well of him:
I love the lovely bully.*
They also exchange banter about the garrulous and absurd Welsh captain, Fluellen. Fluellen has been first encountered in the play at the siege of Harfleur driving the soldiers “into the breach” and trying to engage the infuriated and irascible Irish captain MacMorris - who is busy digging tunnels to lay explosive – in a conversation on “the disciplines of war”. MacMorris gives him a piece of his mind:
It is not time to discourse, so Chrish save me. The day is hot and the weather and the wars and the king and the dukes: it is not time to discourse. The town is beseeched [besieged], and the trumpet call us to the breach, and we talk and, by Chrish, do nothing…
To make the point of Fluellen’s fantasy world further as Pistol exits Henry overhears an exchange between Fluellen and Captain Gower, Fluellen insisting that Gower speak more softly despite the clamour coming from the enemy camp.
Henry’s next encounter is altogether more troubling for him. The second scene begins with three common soldiers – for the immediate purpose it might seem that they do not need to be allocated names, but perhaps it is part of the point that they have names as they appear in the character list even if no one knows them. Indeed, the name of only one of them, John Bates, is ever mentioned in the action. The first speaker, who has only a single line, is identified in the Folio as Alexander Court, which is very likely a play on the name of the company’s sixteen year-old apprentice Alexander Cook, the court of Alexander the Great being referenced in a succeeding scene by Fluellen.
The most significant and complex of the three characters, who is never named in the action, but present when the death toll from the battle is announced in the final scene of the act, bears the name Michael Williams. It is my suggestion that Shakespeare was marking the role to be played by himself: barely encrypted it might be saying “My call – William S”. Why Michael Williams otherwise? There is no such historical character from the chronicles. It is - to re-inforce the point - Michael Williams who “calls out” to Henry in the night in his opening line:
We see yonder the beginning of the day, but I think we shall never see the end of it. Who goes there?
Henry is drawn into the justification of the military campaign by Williams and Bates, leading to the double-edged statement:
Methinks I could not die anywhere so contentedly as in the king’s company, his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.
To which Williams responds bluntly:
That’s more than we know.
Indeed, it is. The justification for war as we have seen in the first act of the play have hinged on the blessing of the Archbishop of Canterbury anxious to escape a parliamentary bill attacking the wealth of the church, and the provocative slight to Henry by the Dauphin (heir to the King of France) of the tennis ball gift. The chilling cynicism with which the archbishop instigates the invasion of France by looking for pretexts in ancient history and canon law could scarcely be more blatant (as it already is in Shakespeare’s main source, Hollinshed’s Chronicle). Following this Henry had responded to the French ambassador over the tennis balls insult with his famous “mock” speech:
…….For many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out their dear husbands
Mock mother’s from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn.
In this way Henry places responsibility for his proposed hideous actions on the Dauphin, for the Dauphin’s admittedly irresponsible taunt – a particularly narcissistic version of honour is being invoked.