After being insulted by the French Prince Dauphin, Henry V and his army invade France.
We find ourselves in the heat of the first battle of Henry’s campaign at Harfleur in northern France. Henry, Exeter, Bedford, Gloucester and Henry’s army storm the fortifications where we can assume that the English forces have already taken casualties – “or close the wall up with our English dead”.
The Royal Shakespeare Company text describes the scene opening with “Alarum. [Enter soldiers with scaling ladders]” i.e: great noise like cannon or artillery fire and many soldiers about to scale the walls of a fortified structure.
By breaking down the script into small parts we can see something pretty special at play here. This monologue is an example of Shakespeare directing an actor from the grave. Strange I know – but I think that is what is happening here!
You’ll notice where I’ve marked down a beat or a thought change. These indicate a new idea or image being explored. More so than other monologues in verse I’ve looked at recently, this is an example of Shakespeare putting breaks or thought changes half way through lines. He also breaks the natural iambic pentameter many times, adding extra syllables. These are commonly known as ‘feminine endings’. These can be used to emphasise and image or idea. Perhaps Shakespeare wants us to make the most of the language.
Another possible direction is putting thought changes in the middle of a line. This could be Shakespeare indicating to the actor to drive through the poetry of iambic pentameter and right to the end of the thought. The internal full stops mean that the end of the sentence isn’t at the end of iambic line but half way through it. This really breaks up the poetry of the language making it feel rough and spontaneous.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at what this monologue looks like when it’s broken up.
Beat Change: Space
Thought Change: /
(F): Feminine ending
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; /
Or close the wall up with our English dead. /
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility: /
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger; / (F)
Stiffen the sinews, / summon up the blood, /
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage; /
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect; /
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; / let the brow o’erwhelm it (F)
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base, /
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean. /
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide, /
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit (F)
To his full height. / On, on, you noblest English (F)
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof! /
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders, / (F)
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument. /
Dishonour not your mothers; / now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you. / (F)
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. / And you, good yeoman, / (F)
Whose limbs were made in England, / show us here
The mettle of your pasture; / let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not; / (F)
For there is none of you so mean and base, /
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes. /
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, /
Straining upon the start. / The game’s afoot: /
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’ /
Once more to the break, dear friends, once more
Or fill up the break with our dead English bodies.
In peace time, nothing is so fitting for a man
As to be unassuming, unmoved and humble,
But when war is blasting around your ears,
Then imitate the actions of a tiger:
Flex your muscle, summon up the blood,
Disguise your kind human nature with ugly rage.
Give your eyes a terrifying appearance,
Let them look out the portholes of your head
Like cannons, let your brow overhang it,
As frighteningly as does a gnarled rock,
Overhang and jut out over it’s ruined base,
Washed with the wild and destructive ocean.
Now grit your teeth and stretch wide your nostrils,
Hold hard your breath and strain every part of your spirit
To it’s full potential. Onward, onward you noble-born Englishman,
Who’s blood is derived from fathers tested in battle,
Father’s that, like so many great conquerors,
Have in this country, from dawn till dusk fought
And sheathed their swords only when there was no one left to fight.
Do not dishonour your mothers, now confirm
That the men whom you called ‘father’ did conceive you.
Be an example now to men of lesser bloodlines,
And teach them how to make war. And you worthy farmers,
Whose bodies were made in England, show me here,
The strength of your breeding: let me swear
That you are worth your name, which I do not doubt.
For isn’t one of you so low-born in status
That doesn’t have a noble blaze in their eye.
I see you standing like greyhounds at the start of a race,
Straining to get off the leash. The game’s underway:
Follow your spirit and upon my charge
Scream ‘God for Harry, England and St George’!
Unfamiliar Words & Phrases
Breach: A hole or gap in defence fortifications.
Sinews: A hard fibrous material that connects muscles to tendons or ligaments.
Portage: Porthole, as on a ship.
Bend up: Could refer to the archers bringing tension to their bows.
War-proof: Those that have proved themselves in war.
Alexander: Alexander the Great who conquered the known world.
Copy: An example for.
Yeoman: Not a gentleman or of noble birth – farmers.
Pasture: The land on which you were raised, in other worlds – how you were raised.
Slips: Greyhound leashes designed for quick release, used in racing.
Game: Could refer to hunting game; the rabbit the greyhound chase around the circuit during the race.
Afoot: Underway, happening now.
This monologue demonstrates what a skilled orator Henry V has grown into. Using image laden language and rhetoric he demands that his soldiers put their humility aside and put on the face of war to become fearsome warriors.
When I read this monologue the word that pops into my head is ‘urgency’. Henry must unite his troops to attack otherwise he risks losing the battle and his whole campaign before it has even begun. The speech could end after “One more unto the breach dear friends once more, or close the wall up with our English dead”. However, my guess is that Henry’s soldiers are not willing to continue the fight. It is then, in the heat of battle, that Henry must appeal to all ranks of his army, urging them on.
Henry begins a systematic approach to motivating his forces. Henry begins with a command to action – put on the face of war. Then he appeals to the nobles “On, on you noblest English” and then he appeals to the common man “And you good yeoman whose limbs were made in England”. He very cleverly galvanises his forces, ensuring that they are all in the same state of mind – ready to take and give life.
Interestingly, the first half of the speech is about transforming your outside appearance and physicality to shift your emotional state. In other words: look terrifying and therefore become terrifying. An idea that has become famous with modern day top performance coaches like Tony Robins. Who would have thought that Shakespeare knew about this idea 450 years ago?
Once all is said and done, this monologue is about one thing – getting soldiers to fight. Once you’ve done the text work, I think it’s about letting it all go and remembering one objective and pursuing it with urgency and passion.