We need more literary holidays. Right now we have Bloomsday, and that’s about it. As great as Ulysses may be, we’re missing out on plenty of other books that lend themselves to an annual celebration. For what it’s worth, I want to claim today (October 25) for readers. A lot of people don’t know it, but today is already a holiday — St. Crispin’s Day. In theory, it’s meant to honor a Christian martyr named Crispin, but for me the day belongs to William Shakespeare and his play Henry V. The drama’s most memorable scene is the title character’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech, in which he rallies the British army to face off against a larger French force on the Feast of St. Crispin.
And there are lots of ways we can celebrate it. After all, the St. Crispin’s Day Speech is one of the best inspirational speeches in literature, and it was written by the most famous dramatist in the history of the English language. It practically demands to be read aloud. People could even perform it at home and post it on You Tube. As for myself, I am celebrating by simply reading the play — and thinking about the king at the center of it.
The St. Crispin’s Speech is not only great theater, it is Henry’s defining moment as a character. In it, he brushes aside concerns that his troops are outnumbered by declaring, “The fewer men, the greater share of honor” and insisting that anyone afraid to fight should leave because “We would not die in that man’s company/That fears his fellowship to die with us.” He slowly works these two threads — glory and fellowship — together throughout the address:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
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 Crispin’s day.
Henry is playing on his men’s desire for acclaim, telling them that they will be seen as heroes back home, “Familiar in his mouth as household words.” He doesn’t stop there, however. The speech culminates not only with Henry’s most famous line, but also with his boldest promise:
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…
Though it is a remarkable piece of rhetoric, inspiring his men to an unexpected victory at the Battle of Agincourt, the attentive reader or playgoer will notice that it is transparently untrue. After all, the play is called Henry V for a reason — because it is Henry, and Henry alone, who is remembered for the victory at Agincourt. The men that make up his “band of brothers” are almost all unnamed in the play and have been forgotten by history. They are fighting for Henry’s glory, not their own. Henry readily admits, “if it be a sin to covet honour,/I am the most offending soul alive.” His speech is a means to that end — he is rallying his troops because he needs them to make himself famous. He is lying to them even as he asks them to give up their lives on his behalf.
As W.B. Yeats observes, “(Henry) is as remorseless and undistinguished as some natural force, and the finest thing in his play is the way his old companions fall out of it broken-hearted or on their way to the gallows.” Yeats is referring especially to the fate of Bardolph, Henry’s erstwhile friend who is executed by a British officer — with the king’s approval — over a petty theft. What’s most striking about the scene is his coldness about giving the order, saying, “We would have all such offenders so cut off.”
Henry’s treatment of his friends is revealing. Bardolph dies because Henry wants to maintain total discipline in his ranks. Friendship and mercy do not produce victories, so Henry discards them. In the two parts of Henry IV — a pair of earlier plays focused on Henry’s youth — Prince Hal (as he was then known) is a friendly, jovial man, often playing pranks on Bardolph and their mutual friend John Falstaff. Now he is calculating and cruel. In Henry V’s first act, we learn that Falstaff has died of grief after being cast aside by Henry as a political liability. This is especially poignant because in Henry IV, Part One, Falstaff sets himself up as Henry’s one connection to humanity, warning the prince, “banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”
What the execution of Bardolph illustrates is that Henry has indeed “banished all the world,” and done so willingly. He does not have a single conversation in the entire play that doesn’t further his ambitions; he has no friends, no emotional attachments of any kind. All this is done in the service of becoming a “great” man. By some measures, it works. His willingness to say anything to his subjects makes him a great manipulator of emotions, which in turn makes him an effective public speaker. His single-minded pursuit of glory makes him a brave soldier, willing to throw himself into battle alongside his troops if that’s what it takes to impress them. Most importantly, from Henry’s point of view, he is successful — not only conquering France but also seducing the nation’s princess, Katherine, which should ensure that his offspring would inherit the French throne. Henry is a winner, and as he points out in his battlefield address, history remembers winners.
But it is one thing to remember a man; it is another to honor him. The play subtly makes the case that winners aren’t necessarily worth honoring — that greatness is a paltry thing. The poet W. H. Auden says it best: “Hal has no self.” He is incapable of reflection; he wants and he acts and that is all. If to lodge himself in people’s memory, he needs to invade another country on flimsy pretexts, then he does it without a second thought. He will also execute a friend for a relatively minor offense to set an example. He will even promise a woman he has never seen before that he is in love with her in the hopes of adding another title to his own. By showing us the emptiness and selfishness underlying Henry’s noble words and brave deeds, the play warns us to be leery of great speeches, great men, and even great victories.
Henry’s triumph at Agincourt brings no benefit to the English nation. The whole reason his force is so small is because most of his troops are needed back home to prevent a split among the English nobles from turning into a full-fledged rebellion — a split that Henry makes no effort to heal. His friends either end up dead, like Falstaff and Bardolph, or disillusioned. And students of British history know that Henry’s son, Henry VI, will not be able to hold his father’s empire together, and that Henry’s heirs will never truly rule France. Though Henry is acclaimed as a hero at the play’s end, it’s clear the only beneficiary of his heroism is himself. He is a walking statue — emotionless, rigid, and of no practical value to anyone.
In Henry V, Shakespeare offers us an opportunity to see the horror that results from pursuing winning only for its own sake. This is why St. Crispin’s Day ought to belong to Shakespeare’s play, and not the historical Henry’s battle. Because by reading, rereading, or simply thinking about the play, we are reminded that there is often a difference between the achievements that usually get remembered and the achievements that actually make people’s lives better. In a sense, the best counterpoint to Henry is Shakespeare himself, who has managed to take a shallow, dishonest man and turn him into the subject of a profound, candid work of art. That’s the kind of accomplishment I want to celebrate.
Who’s with me?