‘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.’ – Henry V
The Battle of Agincourt took place on 25 October 1415 and was a major English victory of the Hundred Years War. Over the course of 2015 many events will commemorate the battle – amongst them a Royal Armouries’ special exhibition at the Tower of London, which will explore the ‘the story, myths and legacy of this extraordinary battle’. A sumptuously illustrated book – the defining reassessment of arguably the most iconic military engagement of the medieval era – accompanies the exhibition. Join us on the YaleBooks blog as we celebrate Agincourt600 by sharing a selection of extracts from The Battle of Agincourt: ‘Agincourt Chivalry’, ‘Agincourt Weaponry’ and ‘Shakespeare’s Agincourt’.
This extract is taken from the chapter Shakespeare and the Historians: The Writing of Henry V by Ros King
Henry V is probably Shakespeare’s most contentious play; critics argue about whether it glorifies a plucky little England winning against the odds or presents Henry himself as a ruthless Machiavellian, even a war criminal. Nearly forty years ago, the American scholar Norman Rabkin helpfully likened the play to the kind of image (and philosophical conundrum about the nature of seeing) which looks at one moment like a duck and another like a rabbit. But this did not stop the debate, perhaps because even Rabkin could not quite get beyond the idea that the play ‘points in two opposite directions, virtually daring us to choose one of the two opposed interpretations’.
Agincourt was nearly 200 years in the past when Shakespeare wrote Henry V, probably in 1599, and the play’s Epilogue reminds us that Henry’s gains were soon lost by his successors. The loss of other continental lands made Calais a wholly English town, sending MPs to Westminster from 1536 to the loss of the town in 1558, while Le Havre was briefly given that special English status as the result of the treaty of Hampton Court in 1562. By then, however, the context had changed. From the 1560s until the early seventeenth century, successive wars of religion in France, resulting in a flood of Protestant Huguenot refugees into England, and the Protestant Dutch Revolt against Catholic Spanish rule in the Netherlands underlined the precarious conditions for belief in Europe. Elizabeth I had refused to allow England to become overtly involved in these conflicts, but thousands of Englishmen went as mercenaries (on all sides) or as part of the earl of Leicester’s private army to help the Dutch Protestants. There was a boom in the publication of military manuals for the general reader. With an undeclared war against Spain, conducted largely by privateers, and Elizabeth’s attempts to extend English rule in Ireland resulting in rebellions by first the Desmonds and then Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, there was a war being fought close to home in almost every year of Shakespeare’s life, and destitute, war-damaged ex-soldiers became a social problem in London and the Channel ports.
I want to suggest, therefore, that Shakespeare’s Henry V attempts to do more than offer its readers and spectators a binary choice. The play dovetails two very different approaches to history-writing, blends multiple genres (history, comedy and romance), and mixes characters drawn from different social and ethnic backgrounds. The result is much more than a story about a single medieval military expedition. Indeed, it is not much interested in the tactics and technology of Henry’s campaign: there are no archers or sharpened anti-cavalry stakes. Instead it recognises that wars are fought with rhetoric as much as with weapons, and its multiple shades of opinion and conflicts of interest raise important questions about the uses of history, the conduct of war even the very concept of a ‘just war’ – which are still acutely relevant to us today.