Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
Although I loved reading William Shakespeare's history play Henry V, one scene initially left me angry, disappointed, and confused. Henry's speech to the Governor of Harfleur nearly destroyed the admiration and sympathy that the other scenes were building for King Henry (or Harry, as he is often called). Seeking the surrender of the Governor of Harfleur, Harry speaks quite graphically about what would happen if he chose not to give in. Towards the beginning of the speech, Harry boldly dares them to "defy us to our worst; for I am a soldier, / […] If I begin the batt'ry once again, / I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur / Till in her ashes she lie buried / The gates of mercy shall be all shut up" (3.3.5-9). These lines are harsh and war-like, but the lines become really offensive and ominous when Harry explains what their "worst" includes:
"What is't to me […]
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
of hot and forcing violation?
[…] Look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes" (3.3.19-38)
Harry warns of many frightening outcomes. His attitude is that if the French surrender now, they are guaranteed his protection; if they do not surrender, then he is sure his soldiers will run wild in the frenzy of battle, and he will consider the fault lies with the French, who provoked the English to a second round of fighting. Harry seeks to absolve himself of any barbarous deeds of his soldiers by saying that once they are in the heat of battle, he cannot control them, and therefore, he cannot be blamed for anything they do. Thus, Harry not only distances himself from responsibility for his soldiers' possible deeds but also uses the possibility of their brutality to create fear and to bend his political enemies to his will.
What does this cold-hearted speech say about Harry's character? Does Harry really mean what he says, or is he bluffing? These two questions have haunted me ever since I first heard the speech. I have come to the conclusion that most of what Harry says to the governor is a lie. But getting to this point involved much thought and study. First, we will explore the impact that film interpretations have had on this opinion.
When I originally read the Harfleur speech, I imagined a quite cold and almost inhuman king delivering it. I must confess watching the Kenneth Branagh film version, as well as the newer Tom Hiddleston version (from The Hollow Crown Miniseries), somewhat altered my perception of Harry. Both of these films put a likeable face and voice to Harry, making the character come alive. In both films, the scene seems less harsh to me. After the Governor of Harfleur surrenders, Harry tells his uncle Exeter to enter and "use mercy to them all" (3.3.54). The films portray Harry as relieved to have avoided conflict and pleased to command mercy. His face loses its hard expression quickly and fades into something gentler and more benevolent. These film portrayals influenced me into thinking perhaps Harry does not relish all of the cruel things he says in his speech. These actors' interpretations were the first step toward my seeing Harry in a new light.
The films made me question the truth of Harry's harsh words. Next, I began to look through the play to see whether or not any textual evidence existed for my new opinion. I found almost immediately that Harry lies to the French about being unable to control the ferocity of his soldiers. Many scenes in the play demonstrate how much power he does, in fact, have over them. A great orator, Harry bends them all to his will frequently, such as in the St. Crispin's Day speech, or in the "Once more unto the breach" speech. Moreover, Henry and his captains demonstrate that they are capable of maintaining order in the ranks and that they value that order. When the rough Pistol pleads for the pardon of Bardolph, who has stolen a pax from a French church, Captain Fluellen replies, "Look you, if he were my brother I would desire the Duke to […] put him to execution; for discipline ought to be used" (3.6.55-58). Soon after this, King Henry expresses a similar sentiment when he pronounces the following:
"We would have all such offenders so cut off: and we
give express charge, that in our marches through the
country, there be nothing compelled from the
villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the
French upbraided or abused in disdainful language;
for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the
gentler gamester is the soonest winner" (3.6.112-119)
Such directions are at odds with his statements at Harfleur. "The gentler gamester is the soonest winner" are his eloquent words, and they undermine the toughness of his earlier speech. Harry presents contradictory sides of himself and his war policies; it is up to the reader to decide which one reflects Harry's nature more accurately. I am inclined to think that the words at Harfleur are an aberration, a terrifying departure from the normally order-loving nature of Harry. Ordinarily, Harry has an inner love of fairness; he is revolted by the thought of the defenseless being harmed. We especially see this when all of his army's pages are killed. He becomes enraged and retaliates by killing all the French prisoners. His boys should never have been touched; it was against the rules of war. His extreme anger can be seen as a response to injustice that goes beyond just a general outrage over losing a valuable member of his party. The incident shows that Harry values life and law.
That being said, Harry finds himself in a desperate situation in Harfleur. As a result, he deliberately makes the choice to undermine his nature because it might help him win the war. His soldiers are tired from battle. The "winter is coming on, and sickness [is] growing among the ranks" (3.355-56). His men need rest. The case can be made that Harry is bluffing to the French, hoping that they will be cowed by his fierceness and that he will never be called upon to prove the threats that he has made. Harry would much rather not spill more blood. He states what he thinks the governor needs to hear, and it does get him the result he desires.
It is a lie, or a half-truth at least, that he cannot keep his men from going mad and wreaking havoc on innocent civilians. He could choose to let them run mad if he wished, but it is not necessary. A few stern warnings to his soldiers could conceivably keep "impious" behavior to a minimum, and any person caught overstepping the laws of war could be made an example of (3.3.15). King Henry, while not exactly meek, is not a true brute either. He is a politician: highly pragmatic, at times a gifted liar, but a man who still respects life and law. I hesitate to fully believe every seemingly uncaring and cruel word that he shouts in the face of the governor and the townspeople of Harfleur.