Clio Edition 4 - page 12

These lines spoken before the battle of Agincourt from
Shakespeare’s King Henry V have become one of the most
iconic speeches in British history, supposedly read out by
generals and sports captains alike on the eve of battle, be
it on the blood-stained field or rugby pitch. Shakespeare’s
words have resonated with people across the centuries.
It’s hard not to feel an emboldening sense of brotherhood
listening to it performed on stage, so I cannot imagine the
incredible effectiveness of its persuasion on those who
actually had a battle to fight.
But why has the speech Shakespeare wrote for this battle
been used so often throughout history? And why has
Agincourt become such a symbol of nationalistic pride? It
comes down to the power of Shakespeare’s rhetoric combined
with his account of England’s unlikely victory against
supposedly insurmountable odds, beating the French in a
display of English stoicism, relentless determination and
above all their unbeatable skill on the battlefield.
However, contrary to Shakespeare’s portrayal of England
as the plucky underdog with almost no hope of victory,
the real situation was significantly different. Despite being
outnumbered, the English had a large number of archers who
were very well trained, unquestionably more skilful than
the French archers, of whom there were very few. Combined
with some ingenious tactics and an inspirational leader with
a clear chain of command, it led to a victory that was less
unlikely than some myths (and indeed Shakespeare) would
But it was Shakespeare’s version, not the reality, that
captured people’s imagination, and it’s not hard to see why,
given that anyone could see it being performed. Even those
who could not read had easy access to the play, with its
rousing addresses and thrilling battle scenes. It also had a
more general application; it was easy to use to inspire soldiers
in any war, either to conjure up national pride or just to prove
that any odds are beatable. All armies, small or big, can see
themselves as the courageous English when confronted by a
more powerful foe, the Goliath to their David, the France to
their England.
The story of Agincourt also rings true with the supposed
‘British mentality’, the values and strengths associated
with our little island. Even though most of these attributes
are stereotypes, they are clearly reflected in the myths
‘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:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
and hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
- King Henry V, Act 4 Scene 3
‘Once more
unto the
By Luca Ferraro
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