Today AoA revives my article from 2016. Monday’s epic launch of the Pfizer vaccine in the UK featured the fact that the second person to be vaccinated was someone called William Shakespeare. The release of this culturally resonant information cannot have been accidental since it would otherwise have breached confidentiality. I was also put in mind of Prime Minister Johnson’s talk the other week of the “scientific cavalry” arriving: nothing could point more to the danger of politicising either science or sickness for the benefit of an elite.
The theme of my 2016 article was that Shakespeare’s play Henry V represented the opposite of a national triumph. The invasion (perhaps “the rape”) of France by England (with representatives of our other three nations in tow) is based on political expedience and vanity, rather than any convincing claim: a false narrative is created. If the war is superficially successful it is not based on the rightfulness of the claim, the will of God, or even superior tactics. The battle of Agincourt is pure chaos and when the French surrender King Henry actually thinks he’s losing, and is engaged in cutting the throats of his prisoners. Meanwhile, the disgusted figure of the infantryman Williams rages across the battlefield, posing the questions which undermine the entire moral basis of the enterprise, or so many other political enterprises, including how they distort and destroy the lives of ordinary people. Even today the play is usually cut to hide its fundamental ironies. I am sure I have not done the play justice - it needs a much longer and more careful essay - but it tells the inner truth of the bad politics of every age, including our own...
Incognito at Agincourt: Shakespeare Accuses the King
‘…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 deafening 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.
It is the character Bates who immediately responds to Williams’ “more than we know” rebuke to the disguised king:
Ay, and more than we should seek after, for we know enough if we know we are the King’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes out the crime from us.
Williams, however, picks up the argument:
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 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….
Henry now embarks on extended legalistic defence of his position:
Besides there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrament of swords, can try it out with unspotted soldiers…Every subject’s duty is the king’s, but every subject’s soul’s his own…
To which Williams responds:
Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head – the king is not to answer it.
This perhaps slyly evades the king’s continuing responsibility for their deaths and momentarily defuses the argument. But Henry’s next ploy is a red rag: encouraged by the readiness of Bates to fight for the king come what may, he ventures:
I myself heard the king say he would not be ransomed.
To which Williams rejoinders:
Ay, he said so, to make us fight cheerfully: but when our throats are cut, he may be ransomed, and we ne’er the wiser.
At this point Henry either becomes very offended, or pretends to be, and a comic sub-plot is formed. Williams promises to box the stranger on the ear if they should both survive the battle, and they exchange gloves as a means of recognition. It is against this background that the comic figure of Fluellen has ultimately been inserted into the action. Obviously, an ordinary man cannot be allowed to strike the king on the ear even in error but after the battle Henry prevails on Fluellen to wear the glove in his cap, and Fluellen is in some respects an excellent substitute: a man who comically believes in warfare as an honourable activity (“the disciplines of war”) although he has a continuous struggle with brute reality of war from his early encounter with Captain MacMorris onwards.
As it plays out Henry’s noblesse oblige requires an act of magnanimity towards Williams and he tells Exeter to fill the glove with crowns and present it to him: Williams can scarcely refuse the king but when Fluellen tries to further patronise him by offering him another twelve pence his bluntness returns:
I will none of your money.
This is his last line but I think it is significant that Williams remains on the stage for remainder of the scene as the dead are numbered and in some cases named, and it is perhaps worth considering what follows in the light of his remark : “I am afeard there are few die well who die in battle”. Preponderantly of course it is the French who do not die well in battle, and in large numbers – their arrogance and insouciance having been a persistent motif of the play. When it comes to the English the list is short:
Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk,
Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, Esq; None else of name; and of all other men
But five and twenty….
So much for Henry’s “band of brothers” of the St Crispin’s Day speech:
This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispinian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers..
It is a good speech (and Henry has a good speech writer) but people like Bates and Court and Williams and the murdered camp boys, who have names but do not at the same time, are only brothers momentarily when it suits.
I do not think this is incidental: the very topic is foreshadowed at the opening of Shakespeare’s immediately preceding play Much Ado About Nothing as if it was on his mind:
Leonato: How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?
Messenger: But few of any sort, and none of name.
Leonato: A victory is twice itself when the achiever brings home full numbers…
Those that have died have already disappeared from recall and do not count. Perhaps, Shakespeare is telling us ahead of the event, that this is the reflex of a man, Leonato, who is a little too quick to disown his daughter when the social group turns against her (people in fact he has not even previously met).
Henry’s final strategy, of course, is to declare that it was God’s work. Fluellen asks:
Is it not lawful, an please you your majesty to tell how many is killed?
Yes, captain; but with this acknowledgement, that God fought for us.
Williams or perhaps William S – still on stage - looks silently on.
The important point, I think, is not that Shakespeare is offering us a celebration of a famous victory. Shakespeare’s Agincourt has no brilliant strategy, no archers even – Shakespeare does not even mention the archers – though they figure so much in virtually every presentation of the play. It is chaos – the French kill the boys in the English camp (which even momentarily upsets Fluellen), Henry unconnectedly orders the slaughter of the French prisoners, and when the French concede defeat Henry has not a clue that he is winning. What we are really offered is a dense and still relevant debate about the social order and its hidden assumptions - based on the prosperity of the class of people with names and status?
*The word “bully” does not have its modern connotations, but simply signifies a fine person.
John Stone is UK Editor for Age of Autism.