In this essay, I will examine the rhetorical and dramatic effectiveness of King Henry’s speech to the Governor of Harfluer in Act 3 Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s play Henry V, looking closely at how this scene emphasizes the ballistic capacity of language in a world that has become untethered and morally ambiguous. A close reading of this scene will emphasize the use of strategic opacity1 that Shakespeare employs, challenging our notion of an admirable Christian King by juxtaposing the mercy of the Christian with the valor of the epic hero and savagery of the pagan.
As the play opens, the chorus uses a simile to equate Henry with Mars, the god of war:
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heals,
Leashed like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment…
In scene 3.4 we see Henry as the human embodiment of these very words. The last lines of 3.3 spoken by Fluellen are ‘…I know the disciplines of war. And there is an end.’ While this is ostensibly talking about the parley that has been sounded, it ominously gives credibility to the verbal assault that is about to take place. There will be an end to discipline if Harfluer does not yield and the rules of military engagement will be suspended.
Yet, the chorus also cautions us to avoid the binary trap, this won’t be a play about a Christian King or a pagan war criminal but rather a combination of both: a man divided into a ‘thousand parts’. (1.0.24)
They sell the pasture to buy the horse,
Following the mirror of all Christian kings
With winged heels, as English Mercuries.
This is a perfect example of language steeped in equivocation: Is the mirror then reflecting an admirable Christian King? Or the patron god of thieves? Is this a sign of England’s dedicated citizenry running to join the war effort? Or the purchase of pasture (or war), with an absurdly high cost beyond sustainability and without foresight? Behind the fantasy of victory and the rhetoric of brotherhood are the bloody yeoman, ‘none else of name,’ (4.8.99) struggling to survive the brutality of war, ‘leashed like hounds’ and crouching for employment.’
The Dauphin has sent tennis balls to Henry, and this becomes the perfect provocation to unleash the English army:
…For many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down,
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn.
What we see in 3.4 is the metastasizing of this rhetoric. Once again, none of the subsequent violence will be his fault if the governor refuses to surrender, the men of Harfluer will be “guilty in defense,” (3.4.43) becoming a scapegoat for the violent consequences of Henry’s actions.
The verbal puttering of weaponry beginning to ready in the ‘mock, mock,…mock….mock’ has now reached its climax. This ‘mock’ has become weaponry, capable of ripping families apart and tearing limb from limb. The ‘dear husbands’ have become the revered silver-bearded men with their ‘heads dashed to the walls.’ Their age and wisdom, alluded to by ‘silver beards’, will be unable to save their families, and the violence perpetrated against their ‘heads’ exposes the impotence of their wisdom. The ‘mothers’ have been transformed to ‘mad mothers’ howling and deranged by anguish. By invoking the confused and howling Jewish mothers, rhetorically Henry has moved the setting into biblical proportions of grief. The Harfluer mothers are compared to the first century Jewish mothers who, like the Old Testament Rachel, will weep for their children without comfort. 3
The ‘ungotten and unborn’ infants of Act 1 have become:
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
While the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds…
A frenzy of sexual sadism is unleashed through the imagery of infant-spiking, while the alliterative ‘fresh fair virgins’ are metaphorically mowed ‘like grass’ and budding infants are deflowered.4 The ‘wasteful vengeance’ is now no longer directed at widows and mothers (1.2.285-88) but adding to dramatic effect has been unleashed upon entire families in a progression of verbal brutality.
Before the gates of Harfleur, Henry has ‘assumed the port of Mars.’ This is a different Henry than the one of Act 1.2 who appeals to God and in whose name he avenges himself. In the first act the violence of war ‘lies within the will of God.’ (1.2.290) In Act 3.4 there is a stark theological absence, no longer are these acts of war carried out in the name of God, but in the name of Henry:
‘…For as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,
If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
Before any democratic, band-of-brother type sexual violence can proceed, Henry begins the battery himself. The innuendo is that he will have his way through reckless force on the body of Harfleur. His rape of the city proceeds the rape of the daughters and virgins and ultimately is a reflection of his union with Katherine, who becomes a metonym for France as a whole, bending to the power of the English throne.
There’s a type of echoing anaphora between the lines that begin ‘What is it then to me if impious war…’ and ‘What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause…’ with the responding lines that begin ‘Whiles yet’. The ‘what is it to me’ lines serve to separate cause and effect. Henry is not responsible for the collateral damage that will befall Harfleur. The violence and ‘licentious wickedness’ (3.4.22) is out of his control. It would be easier to summon the sea monster leviathan to do one’s bidding than to control these ‘enraged soldiers’ (3.4.25-6). Once having been released there is no way to reign in their ‘career’, or gallup. While ‘war’ has become human, anthropomorphized and ‘arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends,’(3.4.16) the humans have been rendered animals.
And then, amidst the crescendo of violence, there is a shift in atmospheric pressure, a brief pause, the hope of cool air and the mercy of a king:
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command,
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villainy.
After this brief reprieve, the dramatic effect is heightened by a quick return to what Harold Goddard describes as an orgy of bloodlust.5 As the alliterative ‘blind and bloody soldiers with foul hand’ (3.4.34) have their way with the daughters of Harfleur. And in a surprising simile, Henry has exchanged the god of war, for a human rendition: Herod, the first century ‘bloody-hunting slaughterman.’ This seems to be a strange allusion to make for a ‘Christian king’…to equate himself with the king determined to murder the ‘Christ’?
What say you? Will you yield and this avoid?
Henry’s rhetoric has been successful. The governor of Harfluer surrenders and in exchange Henry offers them mercy.
And yet, this mercy is not without casualties. Hidden between the lines is the reminder that the cost of this war is cataclysmic loss. There is no winning, only losing. Henry’s metaphor of ‘contagious clouds of heady murder, spoil and villainy,’ ironically alludes to the plague that would befall both France and England, spreading with impunity as a result of over a hundred years of endless fighting and poor hygiene. In reality the pestilence isn’t in the clouds above but in the fetid standing water below, while the city sits precariously on a fault line of subterranean trenches with ‘sickness growing.’ (3.4.55)
The complexity of this passage points not only to a man divided into a ‘thousand parts,’ but a subversiveness within the play that refuses to hold still. It’s brutality challenges not only our expectations of nobility and valor but also of genre. To go from this scene to the next in which Katherine is practicing her comically obscene English words feels cognitively dissonant, which is arguably what Shakespeare was going for. As the chorus proclaims the idealized propaganda of an epic hero, the poetry of the play undermines this with it’s gritty realism, revealing a complex world where justification for war hinges on definitions of masculinity measured by ‘balls’ and ‘gun-stones.’6 (1.2.282)
1. Greenblatt, S., 2010. Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton, p.324.
2.All Henry V quotes found in: Shakespeare, William. Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Howard, J., Maus, K. and Gurr, A., 2008. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton, pp.1544-1611.
3. Jeremiah 31:15, Holy Bible: New International Version.
4.Rubinstein, F., 1989. A Dictionary Of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns And Their Significance. Hampshire: Macmillan, p.339.
5. Goddard, H., 2009. The Meaning Of Shakespeare, Volume 1. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p.237.
6. Rubinstein, F., 1989. A Dictionary Of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns And Their Significance. Hampshire: Macmillan, p.145.