A Look at a Classic
Through Three Media
Dr. Bryan Feuer
Any student of English literature has, at some point, become familiar with the works of William Shakespeare, the definitive master of English dramatic form. Further, those same students would likely become familiar with Shakespeare’s history plays like Richard II and Henry IV. Yet for many, Henry V stands off as one of the more enjoyable history plays written by Shakespeare for its depiction of King Henry as the model for all Christian Kings, the fate of the Eastcheap Five, the Battle of Agincourt and the very famous St. Crispin’s Day speech. Pomp and circumstance aside, while Shakespeare’s Henry V does retell the military campaign Henry waged against the French, there is a wealth of information about the proper battle that has been left out. By reading Shakespeare’s Henry V, watching the film version of Henry V starring Kenneth Branagh, and reading about the Battle of Agincourt in John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, the serious student of history can piece together what really transpired and gauge the relevant effectiveness of all three presentations.
Shakespeare’s Henry V, written about 1599, is a coming of age story in which we see the once madcap Prince Hal growing into maturity and respectability after having ascended to the English throne. The Church is worried that old laws will take effect that will cause them to lose the “better half of our possession…a thousand pounds by the year. This runs the bill” (I.i.94). The Church impresses on Henry to lay claim to the French throne, of which he has a right according to the Salic Law. The legal and religious right that Henry has to wage war is compounded by the arrogant gift of tennis balls to the young king by the Dauphin, the Prince of France. This gift, designed to insult Henry by his youth and vanity, provides the final impetus for war.
After waging a battle to take Harfleur, Henry’s troops are sick and enfeebled. They seek refuge at
It is here that Shakespeare’s craft is at its best. Act 4, Scene 2 opens with the French Constable, massing his forces and looking down over the sickly band of the English. He speaks haughtily, saying “behold yon sick and starved band….There is not work enough for all our hands…our superfluous lackeys and our peasants…(are) enough to purge this field…. A very little let us do and all is done” (IV.ii. 223-224). Shakespeare shows what slight regard the French have for their foe, outnumbering them by the thousands and the English in no condition to fight. The Constable scorns the English and prepares for the first charge after mentioning that the English have already said their prayers and are merely waiting for death (IV.ii. 226).
The English lords who mention the fearful odds mirror the desperation of the situation: “Of fighting men they have full threescore thousand. There’s five to one. Besides, they are all fresh” (IV.iii.227). The overwhelming odds are made known to the reader in two separate lines spoken by
The stage directions call for alarms and excursions. We can only assume how Shakespeare envisioned the battle happening, but he does offer us one important element true to warfare in Henry’s time: the taking of prisoners for ransom. In Act 4, Scene 4 the sharp-tongued but cowardly Pistol has taken a French noble prisoner. He is called Master Fer and says to Pistol that he is the master of a noble house and that a tidy ransom would be paid to Pistol in return for his life: 200 gold crowns (IV.iv.236). Pistol agrees and spares the French prisoner in favor of riches. This particular scene is for comic relief more than anything else. Pistol, along with Bardolph and Nym, are part of the Eastcheap Five, a comical gang of ne’er- do-wells that Shakespeare has used in Henry IV, used as friends and cohorts to the young Prince Hal. Pistol cannot speak French and he uses The Boy, a friend of his, to interpret the Frenchman’s tongue. Pistol continually misinterprets what Master Fer says and the audience gets a good laugh. Here we see Shakespeare catering to the needs of his audience. While the scene has little bearing on what actually occurred at
Act 4, Scene 5 shows the routing of the French forces. Bourbon mentions the shame of their condition and
We learn in Act 4, scene 7 that the alarm is actually two-fold. Not only are the French rallying for a possible charge, but a detachment of French apparently raided the luggage and tents of the English forces, killing all the attendant boys and looting the king’s own tent. Captain Gower mentions that it was “wherefore the King most worthily hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner’s throat” (IV.vii.243). Gower makes us believe that Henry’s order to slay his prisoner’s was merited due to the slaughter of the English boys. He enters with his prisoners: the Duke of Bourbon and
Shakespeare’s play is designed around humanizing larger-than-life figures. As a read, it could be considered quite dry. The language is difficult for the beginner, the stage directions leave much to the imagination, and the battle proper takes place in only a handful of pages. What Shakespeare accomplishes is to further establish Henry’s legend while at the same time protecting him, in some ways, from criticism. It is clearly mentioned that Henry orders the execution of the prisoners only after the boys were killed, thus protecting Henry’s reputation as a just man. Further, Shakespeare is telling the final episode of a long story that had begun with plays featuring Henry’s father and King Richard. Shakespeare is under an obligation to not only relate the story of Henry’s military campaign in
One can get a much better appreciation of the battle proper by viewing the film version of Henry V, starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh. The film medium allows the enthusiast of Henry V to put faces with names and allows Branagh to stage a much more dynamic and dramatic battle. We see the fears and concern on the faces of the men prior to Henry’s Crispin's Day speech. Branagh also shows us the English preparation for battle with the driving of stakes into the ground, the kneeling and praying and kissing of the earth prior to the skirmish, and the image of
Branagh’s film goes a long way to correcting some of Shakespeare’s flaws. Leaving out the prisoners and their execution places Henry even more as a Christian king than produced in the play. Further, with so much more attention placed on the filming and scripting of the battle, Branagh allows his audience a more directed view of the
Keegan’s book spells out what really happened at the Battle of Agincourt. In many ways, what happened is infinitely more entertaining than either Shakespeare or Branagh presents. The English had attacked Harfleur and were on their way to
Henry eventually grew impatient and ordered his men to close the distance between themselves and the French. Keegan notes that Sir Thomas Erpingham (included in both film and text versions) inspected the archers and dressed their line as they advanced (Keegan 89). The English line, composed of a mixture of men-at-arms and archers with a grouping of archers at each flank, marched forward some 700 yards to close to within about 300 yards of the French lines (Keegan 90). The French, meanwhile, were set up in three main lines “of which the third was mounted, as were two groups, each about 500 strong, on the flanks. The two forward lines, with a filling of crossbowmen between and some ineffectual cannon on the flanks were each, perhaps, 8000 strong, and so ranked some eight deep” (Keegan 88). These figures are noteworthy for a few reasons. First, in no place in the film or text do we see the waiting period before the 700-yard march. Second, neither play nor film implies anything but one French line (though Shakespeare does show that the French had mounted horsemen atop a hill following the killing of the boys). Thirdly, there is no mention of cannon in either medium. Keegan’s brief description livens up the scope and design of the battle tremendously over the simple descriptions in the play.
Having halted 300 feet from the French line, the English archers, “who had each been carrying a stout double-pointed wooden stake since the tenth day of the march, had now to hammer these into the ground, at an angle, calculated to catch a warhorse in the chest” (Keegan 90). Again, this is an oversight in the textual version of the battle. But, Branagh’s film clearly shows the English infantry and archers driving stout wooden stakes into the ground. Thus Branagh, at least to some degree, knows of this tactic at the true Battle of Agincourt.
Having driven their stakes, the English then began to rain arrows on their foes from very extreme bowshot. Keegan notes that no soldier was likely hurt due to the volume of armor they wore, but their horses could be injured by arrows falling at a steep angle and penetrating their flanks (Keegan 93). Four such volleys were loosed and served to goad the already surly French into an ill-conceived charge. Keegan notes that “two groups of cavalry, each five or six hundred strong…led by Clignet de Brebant and Guillaume de Saveuse, made the English archer flanks their target” (Keegan 94). The purpose of such was to overwhelm and drive the archers from the field and leave the vastly outnumbered English infantry to fight alone (Keegan 94). The archers continue to rain arrows into the advancing charge, dropping horses and riders (Keegan 95). The result: a mad dash towards the English who, just before impact, stepped back and allowed the French cavalry to charge headlong into the pointed stakes, effectively stopping the charge as quickly as it started (Keegan 96). Horses died, knights fell, archers dispatched fallen knights, and some horses, with or without riders, turned tail and fled headlong into the now advancing French second line.
Of note, the majority if this episode is unseen in either Shakespeare or Branagh tale. In Shakespeare, Henry is alerted that the French are preparing to ride with all speed on the English line. Next, we see the battle met and Pistol taking a prisoner. With Branagh, we see the English preparation of their line but no arrows are loosed to goad the French into attacking. The English let loose only after the French cavalry charge. Again, neither version is accurate to the true details and Keegan’s discussion goes to great lengths to describe what ultimately defeats the French.
Horses that turned from the fray barreled right into the French infantry, obviously disrupting the flow of their advance. The English line gave way a few feet and the archers on the flanks pinch forward, trapping the French cavalry in a horseshoe. The interruption, according to Keegan, bought some valuable time for the English forces to dispatch enemies and brace for the next wave (Keegan 97). Furthermore, the close proximity played favorably for the archers whose arrows could penetrate French armor from close quarter combat. What the archers accomplished was to further bottle up the French in the center of the English horseshoe as French knights wanted nothing to do with archers from that close of range for a myriad of reasons (pride being the most foolish (Keegan 98)). The middle of the English line continued to fall back a step at time, to “spear’s length” in order to keep the advancing infantry off balance as they picked their way past mounted knights and the heaping dead (Keegan 98-99). Here, Keegan notes the prudent thing to do for the French would be to retreat, but retreat was impossible for three reasons. “One was the English fear of quitting their solid positions…behind the archers’ stakes…the second was the French certainty of victory; the third was their enormous press of numbers” (Keegan 99). The flaw here was the advancing second line of infantry continued to press into the throng, pushing knights and footsoldiers into the death dealt by the English army. Bodies were piling up and the stakes the English had planted slowed any consistent French advance. Those at the ‘front’ were essentially pressed to their deaths by their own reinforcements. English archers, with arrow or mace, joined the fray and the slaughter was on.
This entire episode is more or less omitted by Shakespeare. We cannot fault him though as he was telling the story of the king and several subjects primarily. Further, the limitations of staging and props and the like make the staging of this type of battle impossible. Branagh cannot be faulted either for even though the course of battle in the film barely follows Keegan’s facts, Branagh is going for dramatic appeal. The one-on-one combat between the French and English plays better on the screen and to be honest, watching the French bunch up and get mowed down in a straight line might be rather boring on screen if not handled well.
At this point, the majority of the French first line were either dead or captured. Huge numbers of French were captured for ransom by the English, a truth that is accurately portrayed by Shakespeare in the Pistol and Master Fer episode, as well as Henry taking Bourbon and
Keegan’s text is an amazing read if one is interested in the true Battle of Agincourt. Anyone who reads Shakespeare’s Henry V and/or has seen a filmed version of the same would be wise to read Keegan as a supplement. All three serve different purposes. Shakespeare attempts to tell an epic story of a young king waging a war for respect while humanizing very rich and eclectic characters. Branagh attempts to show an epic story through character interaction, musical scores, and grand battlefield scenes designed to better visualize the
Henry V. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Fox Video Company, 1991.
Keegan, John. The Face of
Shakespeare, William. Henry V. The