Monday, May 25, 2009

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers..."

I wasn’t going to post anything today, but then I read this in the NY Post this morning. I always forget about this scene and brilliant speech by William Shakespeare written over 400 years ago. It rings as true today as it did when he wrote it:

Act 4, Scene 3 – The English camp the night before the Battle of Agincourt

O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
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.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
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;
For he to-day 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 accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

My sovereign lord, bestow yourself with speed:
The French are bravely in their battles set,
And will with all expedience charge on us.


All things are ready, if our minds be so.

Perish the man whose mind is backward now!

Thou dost not wish more help from England, coz?

God's will! my liege, would you and I alone,
Without more help, could fight this royal battle!

Why, now thou hast unwish'd five thousand men;
Which likes me better than to wish us one.
You know your places: God be with you all!

Now go to the library and read the rest...


AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Bev! I'm a huge Shakespeare fan and this is very well timed.

In college, I took a senior level Shakespeare course (a course that should have been a requirement, but it wasn't -- unlike so much other PC garbage which was). Henry V was one of the plays that we studied in depth, and this speech has always stuck with me.

If anyone hasn't seen Kenneth Branagh's version of Henry V (1989), it's well worth watching. The nuances he captures and the high notes he hits in this speech alone are incredible. You almost want to get out of your chair and go join the fight.

Henry V Speech

Captain Soapbox said...

Huge Shakespeare fan here as well, and the St. Crispin's Day speech is one of the best speeches ever written.

I'm with you Andrew, if anyone reading this has never seen Branagh's Henry V, and has even the slightest interest in Shakespeare or the Hundred Years War, then you really owe it to yourself to see it. People who tend to like Shakespeare either love Branagh or hate him, personally I think he's a genius. And you're right about the speech and the way he delivers it, I actually went and found it on Youtube as soon as I read Bev's post and before I noticed the link there. Sometimes I miss the obvious. Hehe.

BevfromNYC said...

I am glad to see that public school didn't slap the love of Shakespeare right out of you all. It almost did me until I got around people who really wanted to understand his plays and didn't hold him up in such high regard that he couldn't be reached by mere mortals.

I first heard this speech during a rehearsal for Hank the Vee years ago. I was blown away and I don't even think the guy playing Henry ever understood what he was saying.

Unknown said...

Bev: Unlike some of the others, I am old enough that Western Civ and Western Lit were still core subjects. For some reason other than the obvious, we got Henry IV before Henry V, and I almost despaired of old Willie (discussing what Shakespeare meant by "sledded poleax," for instance). Then on to Henry V. The St. Crispin's Day speech sent chills up my back. Great speech, great writing, and an excellent thought for Memorial Day and our brave fighting men and women.

I also agree with Andrew and Captain Soapbox that of the film versions, Branagh's is by far the best (apologies to Laurence Olivier).

And Bev: Isn't Westmoreland the one who used B-52s so effectively in Vietnam?

AndrewPrice said...


I got lucky in high school because they had a separate track for a couple years that I got to participate in, and we hit literature and history hard. Shakespeare was part of that. Many of the others in my grade read nothing beyond Romeo and Juliet.

In college I sought out the class, because the school was more interested in teaching sociology than literature. I had left an engineering school and I wanted to raise my English skills back from the dead, and I was reading classics. . . and how can you not include Will S. in that?

The class was great, but it was also amazing listening to the other idiot types that you so often find in colleges now. We had two young "wymin" for example, who told us all (every day) that every single female character was a lesbian. We had the cynic who claimed that Shakespeare was that century's sit-com writer. We had the guy who claimed that Shakespeare stole all of his work and thus wasn't worth reading someone.

But fortunately, we also had a professor who loved Shakespeare and knew his stuff.

Since then, I've bought a Shakespeare course from a group called "The Teaching Company." It's like the best of the best of college professors, done on DVD. The idea is that many of us never had a chance to take what we should have in college (college is indeed wasted on the young) and, even if we did, many of us never had access to great teachers. This group has chosen well regarded teachers and asked them to record lessons on DVD. It's really great stuff. I have bought several of these and I can't recommend them highly enough.

Here's the link:
Great Courses

Unknown said...

Slightly off-track here, but I think one of the best pre-battle speeches of all time came from, of all things, the screenwriters for Lord of the Rings--Return of the King, with a little help from Tolkien.

"A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day.

An hour of war, and shattered shields, when the age of man comes crashing down. But it is not this day.

This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, men of the West."

Not Shakespeare, but not bad at all.

BevfromNYC said...

Law - First of all, yes, it is the very same Westmoreland. He lived THAT long!

Next - It is so funny you should cite Lord of the Rings because Henry V is all over that book (and movie).

Andrew - Don't hate me, but I believe that if Shakespeare was alive today, he would be writing for television. I don't mean that cynically either. He wrote for his audience. They didn't have other distractions. Good story telling was their distraction. And since most people of the his day could neither read nor write, the spoken word was the entertainment of the day. I don't think he would be writing sit-coms, but I do think he would be writing all those new great cable shows like "Mad Men".

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I could never hate you -- unless you speak ill of Captain Kirk. Just kidding. . . sort of.

Seriously, I think you're right, he probably would be writing for TV today and he would be very good at it. Unlike many modern "artists," he has no contempt for his audience.

What originally brought this up in my class was Shakespeare's use of mistaken identities, slap-stick, and other modern sit-com conventions in plays like "Comedy of Errors". My professor laughing called that one: "Three's Company, Shakespeare Style".

It wasn't meant as an insult, and it certainly wasn't meant to dismiss Shakespeare's work. But the jerk student latched onto this and applied the same reasoning to each of Will's other plays. Why even take the class at that point?

Captain Soapbox said...

I'm still of the the opinion that the best historical pre-battle speech was the one that Patton gave to Third Army on June 5, 1944. Most of you probably know it from George C. Scott's great portrayal of it in the movie "Patton" but let me tell you, the actual speech was even more over the top. So over the top that the Army tried to keep it under wraps for years because it was too shocking and crude, and then by the time when they didn't think so any more so long had passed and so many copies had been destroyed in the meantime that it took a long time for historians to find any complete copies of it. It's amazing, and vulgar as hell, in other words: Perfect.

Captain Soapbox said...

Oh and by way of a happy coincidence, "Henry V" (Branagh's version) arrived today from Netflix, I laughed when I opened the envelope. Except when there are new things coming out that I want to see and put at the top of the list my 300+ movie queue is largely full of older movies I'd like to watch again, and pretty much out of sight and out of mind. It came along with "The Last Valley" which I can confidently say is the best movie ever made about the Thirty Years War...

...granted it's the only movie ever made about the Thirty Years War that I can recall, but the point still stands that it's a good flick too.

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