Sunday, 25 October 2009


Shakespeare put a speech into the mouth of Henry V at the battle of Agincourt on the 25 October 1415.

That particular war was one of dynastic pride and conquest for personal gain – the kind of warfare that our civilisation has come rightly to despise. Now we expect out just wars to be of self-defence, or survival, or liberation. Conquerors are beyond the pale – but their kinder successors are not (or shouldn’t be.)

The Saint Crispin’s Day speech plays another part in our national culture: to express not only pride in martial skill and to recognise courage and service, but to glorify ideas of nationhood: of continuity; of people and institutions coming from somewhere and being made by people to suit their present needs and the results bequeathed to us as treasures – our true heritage.

Shakespeare wrote - and his plays were performed - at a time when the idea of Englishness had emerged from two forms of government: mediaeval inernationalism (the conscious thought and political ideal of a united Christendom in Europe) and the private dominions of the landed magnates. Shakespeare was aware of something that was still informal and that would not be made real until the next royal dynasty: of Britishness. We few, we happy few in these islands of four nations were exemplified by the common soldiers, pub joke-like, with Englishmen, and an Irishman, a Scotsman, and a Welshman. He wrote confidently and proudly in the new-found patriotism of his age, and in some ways gave it its language and some of its lasting form.
He wrote with the editorial approval of the State of the day (he had to, otherwise he would not have been allowed to stage his work).

It is dificult to imagine him being able to write so confidently and unequivocally about arms and the men who bear them, and civil society and civil government’s support if he was writing in today’s deliberately and treasonously equivocal days.

What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
Or feel the curses of Mussleman’s ungrateful scorn
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
For all have been stood down from lack of thrift.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Look in my parliament for such
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
And never work or thank or serve
From idler’s cradle to their public grave
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires,
As toys unmade by such as they; enjoyed
But never earned but wished withal and given from the common purse,
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
(Bar a daughter’s death or sullen injury
As infidel prophet and his clerics teach)
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
As are scribes and clerks aplenty safe at home
Or town criers, players, and priests unmanly made
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And eight weeks on the morrow shall be done
As swift as modern chancery allow
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
Who cares from whence; not ministers civil
Nor philosophers public, sage, and loving by their
Daily, oft proclaimed philanthropy.
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Should he not need to stay in filthy hospital
Or dwell amongst vagabond knaves
My judges have decreed shall live as freemen
As rich in rights as any Duke or armsman true,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
And they will curse him, like as not,
For blood he spilled and ne’er question why
Nor wonder whence their freedom comes
But as a gift from God or bounteous Nature
And never think to pay or count the cost
That bought their still felicity.
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
But likelier in schools my kingdom wide
Will learn other names of sages, clerics;
And foremost slaves; but not of those who struck off
Their chains, or why, or how.
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
If drink be made, or law allow
Its quaffing public or in houses
Where weak and hurtful children dwell.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
Should husbands, fathers, or replacements need
To live with mothers e’er again in
England’s generous, charitable slums,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
Unless the parish schools go silent
When England’s kings and martial glory
Need to be retold -
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
As raavagers unversed; ignorant, unlettered
And base; cursed as swordmen; killers plain
By those who think of peace as rain but not the work of men.
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,
Which may be true if hospital bed it be;
Unchanged, unwatched, unsanitary
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

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