Clio Edition 4 - page 13

surrounding the battle, in terms of a stoical attitude to great
adversity. This has led to Agincourt’s use as a reminder
of British strength even in the face of dire odds. A prime
example of this was just before the start of the Napoleonic
wars, during post-revolutionary times; a letter in The Times
from 1794 started with the words ‘Countrymen, remember
Agincourt!’, just one of many allusions to the battle, intended
as a morale-booster.
However, this mentality was not always appropriate,
especially coming to the end of the First World War, when
Henry V fell out of fashion because of widespread war-
weariness now that everyone knew of the horrors of battle;
many critics complained that Henry was merely a jingoistic
fool, willing to win at the cost of his men. This was on top
of the fact that France was now a significant ally, so it was
not tactful to put on a play admonishing the arrogance and
failings of the French.
But the play returned to public favour with the advent of the
Second World War, when in May 1942 Lawrence Olivier was
convinced to do a reading of the ‘Once more unto the breach’
and ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speeches, which were broadcast on BBC
Radio under the title ‘Into Battle’. Olivier later made a film of
the play, directed by and starring himself; it was reported to
have delighted Prime Minister Winston Churchill with its
potential as morale-boosting propaganda. Some politicians
were concerned about the effect the film would have on
Franco-British relations. However, they were ignored and the
film was passed for general release.
The next on-screen incarnation of Henry was a less positive
one. The 1989 film made by Kenneth Branagh portrayed the
battle with lots of gore and mud, a stark contrast to Olivier’s
stylised Technicolor Agincourt. It reflected an era that was
overshadowed by the cold war, and the constant threat of
nuclear destruction.
The changeability of the way Agincourt was presented just
served to demonstrate what Shakespeare had done. Through
a skilfully written narrative he had made a play that was,
quite literally, all things to all men; it was now the story of a
battle, the depictions of which changed to suit opinions of the
time. It could be used as a tool to promote or to warn against
war, to motivate or to discourage troops, or to glorify or
condemn battle in the eyes of the public.
He may not have realised it at the time, but what
Shakespeare had created was a political weapon, that would
be wielded on many occasions throughout History to great
effect. On the surface the play is just a glorification of a battle
that did not have much effect on the geo-political situation at
the time, but if you dig a little deeper, the play, with all of its
inspiring speeches, is actually something that might just have
influenced the course of History after all.
1. Poster for the film
Henry V
2. The battle of
Agincourt 1415
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