The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1067  Monday, 17 May 2004

From:           Richard Burt <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 16 May 2004 16:05:45 -0400
Subject:        Our King George Faces a Reckoning

Our King George Faces a Reckoning
By Jack Miles


In the poetry of war, few passages have a nobler ring than does Henry
V's oft-quoted speech on the eve of the historic battle of Agincourt.
Henry asks his men to imagine themselves years hence, on St. Crispin's
Day, the anniversary of the battle, telling the grand tale to their sons
and grandsons. St. Crispin's Day, he says:

... shall ne'er go by, / From this day to the ending of the world, / But
we in it shall be remembered / We few, we happy few, we band of
brothers; / For he today 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, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks /
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day

["King Henry V," Act 4, Scene 3]

After Agincourt, the king promises, the lowliest foot soldier will die a

But will he, or does a different reckoning await him? In a quieter
scene, earlier in Shakespeare's play, Henry finds himself in a
surprisingly frank discussion - conducted in prose, not in poetry - with
two of his knights, Williams and Bates. The king states the conventional
view of death for one's country: "Methinks I could not die anywhere so
contented as in the king's company; his cause being just and his quarrel
honorable." But Williams boldly questions how ordinary soldiers are to
make such judgments about justice and honor, saying "That's more than we
can know."

Then Bates breaks in: "Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we
know enough, if we know we are the king's subjects: if his cause be
wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us."

In the vernacular of our day, the king has said, "Trust me." Williams
has answered, "How can I?" and Bates has countered, "I do trust you
because then whatever goes wrong, I have the excuse 'I was just
following your orders.' "

[ . . . ]

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